No disrespect to Keira Knightley, whose bristling performance in the title role of Therese Raquin ranges compellingly from suffocated imprisonment through ecstatic liberation to haunted hysteria, but the real star of director Evan Cabnet’s Broadway production is the design team. Beginning with an austere canvas of deadening gray that engulfs the play’s antiheroine, Beowulf Boritt’s imaginative sets — daubed in lighting designer Keith Parham’s painterly shadings — boldly evoke the loveless marriage at the center of Emile Zola’s novel. But British playwright Helen Edmundson’s adaptation is a mixed bag, falling into traps that may be unavoidable in any literal treatment of this material for contemporary audiences.
A classic of literary naturalism, Zola’s 1867 novel was considered scandalous in its day for the candid depiction of an adulterous couple driven to murder by their animalistic passion. That shock factor has been dulled over the decades by countless novelistic, cinematic and theatrical descendants; Therese Raquin provided archetypes for the noir figures who schemed in the shadows of works like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. Adultery, murder and madness have also become staples of overwrought soaps. And it’s that familiarity which often threatens to nudge Edmundson’s play from moody Hitchcockian intensity into melodramatic, bodice-ripping camp — particularly in Act II, when the fallout from the story’s crime comes crashing down.
An underpowered 2013 screen version with Elizabeth Olsen, In Secret, revealed the dangers of excessive fidelity to the source material, which served, more intriguingly, as the inspiration for Thirst, a 2009 Korean vampire movie drenched in blood and operatic kink. Whatever the weaknesses of this attempt to play it straight, the classy Roundabout production is seldom less than gripping, only dawdling in the final stretch, which builds to a tragic conclusion.
Knightley segues from playing one of the great adulteresses of European literature in Anna Karenina to another, with a tremulous commitment that prevents you from taking your eyes off her. (Her face is the last thing visible in every fadeout.) The actress appears drawn to playing birds struggling to break free from their cages; Therese shares qualities not only with Anna Karenina, but also with the more happily self-emancipated Lizzie Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, who bucks convention by insisting on marrying for love.
As Therese, Knightley hardly speaks for the first half-hour. Wearing a dowdy dress, her hair pulled back in an unflattering bun, she seethes in repressed silence most of the time while her sickly cousin Camille (Gabriel Ebert) is doted on by his overprotective widowed mother (Judith Light). Therese was left in Madame Raquin’s care as a child by her seafaring father, who never returned to the village on the Seine where they live. She only appears to come alive at the river, while contemplating its promise of freedom. (The importance of the water motif is established from the outset — both in the text and in the visuals, enhanced by the mesmerizing ripple effect of Parham’s lighting.)
Therese and Camille have been raised as siblings, and while he shows no sign of having matured beyond a bratty, petulant child with an inflated opinion of himself, Madame Raquin arranges for them to marry as soon as her niece turns 21. Neither of them objects, but as her aunt drapes a veil over Therese’s head, Knightley looks less like a bride than a nun headed for punishing convent life.
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“Where will you take me?” Therese asks the river. “Let it be somewhere light. Somewhere beautiful. Let me live.” Even while she’s speaking, the answer begins its descent from above in designer Boritt’s first stunning coup de theatre, as the dark Paris apartment to which the family of three relocates fills the stage, like a mahogany coffin.
As a visual representation of Therese’s psychological jail it’s powerful stuff, but there are missteps in the writing and directing that compromise the drawn-out, detail-laden setup. For one thing, Knightley is over-directed to show the character’s inability to breathe — in gasping moments of panic rather than by subtler means — and her febrile isolation at times risks making her seem a dolt, which is exactly how Camille treats her. A bigger problem is that the lack of self-awareness in both Camille and his mother makes them borderline cartoons. Ebert, in particular, plays his character as such a vile, snickering idiot that you start plotting for someone to kill him before the idea even arises.
It does, of course, when swarthy Laurent (Matt Ryan), a childhood friend from the village, resurfaces in the Paris office where Camille works, and starts accompanying him to weekly evenings of dominos and tea chez Raquin. While Camille laughably describes himself as “a man of action,” Laurent wears his worldly ways and masculine appetites with an easy swagger, which jolts Therese out of her torpor.
The play gets a welcome sensual charge from the electricity between these two; pretty soon they are arranging secret trysts while Madame Raquin is off tending to the haberdashery shop downstairs. When Therese sneaks out one night to visit Laurent in the garret beneath a skylight (another breathtaking design stroke from Boritt) where he lives, it becomes obvious that Camille has got to go. The book’s famous drowning scene is one of the production’s high points, preceded by a teasing, tantalizing buildup and then played out viscerally in an onstage river.
With Camille’s demise accepted as a boating accident, the points of the drama’s triangle shift to Therese, Laurent and the grief-stricken Madame Raquin. The latter’s precipitous physical decline brings her new mental perspicacity once her body shuts down and she retains command only of her accusing eyes. Light, as always, is terrific as a silly, blindly trusting woman whose faith in those closest to her is shattered. The actress humanizes the overbearing gargoyle by small degrees, making her a touching figure and then a wonderfully malevolent one as her gaze follows Therese and Laurent around the apartment like a vengeful Chucky doll.
While in Act 1, Ryan (a London stage regular best known in the U.S. for NBC’s Constantine) is limited chiefly to playing the hunk in the frock coat, he gets more to bite into later on, as the couple’s guilt tightens its chokehold on them. Knightley, too, is riveting as the volatile Therese broods over the consequences of her deeds, scrambling to show her tortured loyalty to Madame while shifting the blame. But there’s never a lot of emotional investment in anyone onstage. Although the actors are magnetic and the Grand Guignol-accented story deliciously juicy, the play veers into overblown histrionics as Therese’s hallucinations assume the full-on haunted-house effect of fingernails screeching on a blackboard.
A touch more restraint in the accelerating spiral of recrimination, disgust and fear might have kept the action anchored in reality rather than melodrama, and a more economical adaptation could have ushered the story along more briskly than its too-unhurried two-and-a-half hours. That said, the production provides a feast for the eyes in the work of Boritt, Parham and costumer Jane Greenwood, and a richly textured enveloping mood in the soundscape and music of Josh Schmidt.
Cast: Keira Knightley, Gabriel Ebert, Matt Ryan, Judith Light, David Patrick Kelly, Jeff Still, Mary Wiseman
Director: Evan Cabnet
Playwright: Helen Edmundson, based on the novel by Emile Zola
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Keith Parham
Music & sound designer: Josh Schmidt
Fight director: J. David Brimmer
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company