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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Like most their Broadway productions, the Roundabout has chosen an established dramatic hit with roles to showcase a cast featuring actors with box office appeal. Their choice for Knightley's debut is Émile Zola's sexy period drama Thérèse Raquin. They've surrounded her with a group of actors who couldn't be better.
So is this a case of an ideal Broadway debut role for Ms. Knightley, or is her playing the title role an effort to make a familiar period drama work its audience drawing magic once again? Probably a little bit of both.
For many people, the name Émile Zola brings to mind his "J'áccuse. . .!" letter charging the French government of anti-semitism in the espionage conviction of Alfred Dreyfus. But he was also a prolific writer of novels and plays in the style known as literary realism. Thérèse Raquin, his first big success, was loosely based on an actual murder in France. But while the real lovers were convicted and hanged, Zola condemned them to crippling, passion-destroying guilt. In short, his aim was to explore the deeper side of ordinary people's nature, especially when passion takes over a life that's been caged and to see how social mores affect such uncontrolled flights from conformity.
Thérèse Raquin was a precursor to later stories of ill-fated affairs like James Cain's page to screen hits, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. It has been presented on stage, in movies TV, and even as an opera, again and again.
All these productions, which include a 3-part mini series currently available at Acorn Media, make Zola's sizzling passion play well known to most theater, movie and tv watchers. Perhaps too familiar and thus in need of something or someone special to justify the high cost of a Broadway production.
Since musicals tend to draw large crowds more than straight drama, Lincoln Center's brought the story to Broadway as Thou Shalt Not but it failed despite Harry Connick's music, and Susan Strohman's direction and choreography. These days the best insurance for a profitable Broadway production is a limited run with a movie star which this Thérèse Raquin provides: It's scheduled to end in January and Keira Knightley is definitely a movie star and one who has done particularly well with period dramas. While Thérèse is a new character in a new setting for her, it's a natural role for her since it mirrors another trapped Russian wife Anna Karenina, whom she portrayed on screen just a few years ago.
The text for the current production is an adaptation by Helen Edmundson, a proven expert at mining the classics. Neil Bell's 1997 adaptation for Classic Stage Company added his more fantastical vision to Zola's realism ( review). Edmundson, on the other hand, has crafted a more straightfoward version of the story that relies on the actors and some stunning stage craft to provide a newly relevant, feel to this dark, gothic tale.
Edmundson's version does make Zola's cumbersome four acts flow into more filmic short scenes. However, the true to the novel approach does seem to cause the dialogue (and even the sexual encounters) to prompt unintended laughs from the audience. Maybe to ease the unrelieved gloominess of the staging and narrative.
Still, under Evan Cabnet's helmsmanship, the actors do give the play individuality and coherence. Knightley's restraint during the mostly wordless first part is something to watch. While her voice isn't especially distinctive and her performance is not as riveting as I remember Elizabeth Marvel's at CSC to be, she does capture the shifts in this frustrated young woman's emotions.
Judith Light is almost unrecognizable but memorably so as the over-protective, controlling Madame Raquin. Her non- verbal acting as a stroke victim horrified by what she learns about her beloved son's death also makes it advisable to bring opera glasses if you don't have a close to the stage seat.
As portrayed by Gabriel Ebert the spoiled Camille is indeed a husband any woman with a yearning for tenderness and excitement would detest. The way the director has Knightley take possession of the marital bed once the wicked deed is done is a master stroke for having a stage picture saying more than a thousand words.
Matt Ryan as Laurent ultimately brings out genuine despair in the venal lover. The stifling tedium of the weekly domino games in the Raquin parlor is deepened by minor character players Jeff Still, Mary Wiseman and David Partrick Kelly.
But the real star of this Thérèse Raquin is the stage craft. Besides having props rise and slide into position for maximum fluidity, scenic designer Beowulf Borritt has created a water motif that begins with Thérèse seeking release from the entrapment of life with her aunt and cousin. It culminates with the lovers and the doomed husband in a row boat. Keith Parkham's lighting brilliantly throws the actor's faces, especially Knightley's and Light's, into sharp relief. The grisaille palette of Jane Greenwood's costumes is in keeping with the overall darkness, as is Josh Schmidt's incidental music.
I've always been a Zola fan, though this story of a seemingly emotionless young woman ready to burst into life has never been my favorite. Yet, the many variations of this old-fashioned morality tale do point to its durability. Therefore, if you've never seen it, you could do a lot worse than this handsome production. To experience the Roundabout's more adventurous side, best head for The Humans currently at their Laura Pels Theater.