Keira Knightley: Motherhood puts everything in perspective

30 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Keira Knightley takes on ‘scary’ role in Therese Raquin on Broadway.

We’ll get shortly to the exquisitely observed “The Humans,” a bristling family play by Stephen Karam (“Sons of the Prophet”) in Roundabout’s off-Broadway space, the Laura Pels Theatre.No stranger to the stage, the British-born star has appeared several times in London’s West End, but said Broadway was a different experience for her.An orchestra seat for Broadway’s “Thérèse Raquin” costs $137, but this gets you heated sex, white-knuckle suspense, spooky gothic ambience and a murder in a real boat floating in real water.

As for the vehicle Knightley has chosen for her Broadway debut, a confoundingly dreary adaptation of Emile Zola’s steamy 1867 novel “Therese Raquin”: one is hard-pressed to find much in it of interest, or even of a marginally stirring nature. Speaking after curtain call, Keira explained that “West End openings are completely different because you get at the most maybe 10 previews, at the absolute most.” “Then, all the press comes in, watch it, and judge it on one night, which is your press night, opening night.

Knightley’s love interest isn’t too shabby, either: Matt Ryan — a Welsh actor best known for playing the title character in NBC’s “Constantine” — is the kind of unabashed hunk Broadway desperately needs. Although the book was a sensation in Zola’s time for its explicit acknowledgement of the primal instincts of Therese (Knightley), a woman trapped in a stifling marriage, and her lover Laurent (Matt Ryan), the stage adaptation at Studio 54, where it had its official opening Thursday night, feels leaden, devoid of sexual tension. Rounding up the leads are Judith Light, excellent as usual as Thérèse’s mother-in-law, and Gabriel Ebert (a Tony winner for “Matilda”), who’s appropriately cringeworthy as the doomed heroine’s idiotically vain husband. The pivotal moment at which Therese and Laurent consummate their doomed romantic pact–in the cubby hole-sized bedroom Therese has long despised–sets off no illuminating sparks of release. At half the price, Stephen Karam’s “The Humans” delivers big emotions on an intimate scale — catch it now before it hits Broadway early next year.

Zola may have been interested in examining some of the more clinical aspects of attraction, but in director Evan Cabnet’s production, the appetites that compel the couple to adultery and homicide are treated as the prelude to an affair of no more than a perfunctory variety. We’re led to expect some sort of explosion on Knightley’s part, because she’s encouraged to spend so much of “Therese Raquin” standing around, looking sullen. (If these fierce looks, which form the core of Knightley’s portrayal, could kill, the evening would be a splatterfest.) Married off reluctantly to her cousin, the infantile, self-absorbed Camille (Gabriel Ebert), and reduced to servile status by her indifferent mother-in-law (Judith Light), the Therese of Helen Edmundson’s lumbering adaptation seems primed for vengeance. The 30-year-old star admitted the content was at times “scary and difficult”, and that she found the role “challenging”, which is why she had previously turned it down. “Why do it this time? Her cause is helped by Ebert’s evocation of a Camille so cruelly dismissive of his wife that an audience can’t wait for his terminal comeuppance, at Laurent’s hands, in the middle of a river.

I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve been offered it a bunch of times and I’ve always gone, ‘Well, this is scary and this is really difficult and what is this?’ I had no idea how to do it, absolutely no idea. “I don’t know this time I think I was just up for it. Watch in particular for Cassie Beck’s breakthrough performance as the older daughter, the family rock now facing a breakup, medical issues and the loss of her job. The Roundabout Theatre Company production, which opened Thursday at its Studio 54 theater, is an adaption by Helen Edmundson of the 1867 novel by Emile Zola. For the ultimate in performance stasis, however, few exercises match the challenge presented to Light in Act 2, as her Madame Raquin, incapacitated by a stroke, must sit for long stretches frozen and expressionless in a wheelchair, her eyes darting back and forth. The worst that can happen is that you fail, you know and I wanted something really, really challenging, so I just said yes and I dived in.” “I think motherhood puts everything into perspective, I really do.

Director Evan Cabnet has encouraged the humor, passion, and the horror, but all those elements stewing together over the two-and-a-half-hour play eventually start to spoil. If time seems to stand still at “Therese Raquin,” it passes in a compulsively watchable whoosh during Roundabout’s other new entry, Karam’s world-premiere “The Humans.” This comedy-drama returns us to some familiar theatrical terrain: the American family, under all kinds of financial and emotional duress. You try not to, you try your best and I’ve been really lucky that I have had the opportunity to be working and finding things interesting, and working with interesting people while being a mum at the same time. As her sickly, dismissive husband Camille, Gabriel Ebert is superb and Ryan is strong as the overwhelmed lover, but Judith Light as Camille’s mother is too, well, nice.

But the portrait is so richly embroidered and the acting under Joe Mantello’s direction so acute that the positive effects come in the form of both exceptional authenticity and continual surprise. The surprise has to do with the degree to which we’re captivated by the small-bore adversities faced by the Blake family, ordinary exemplars of the nation’s disappearing working class. “The Humans” finds them gathered on Thanksgiving in the shabby but spacious apartment in Manhattan’s Chinatown that the younger daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Richard (Arian Moayed) have recently rented. Brigid’s parents from Scranton, Erik and Deirdre (Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell), bring along Erik’s mother Momo (Lauren Klein), suffering from end-stage dementia, while older daughter Aimee (Cassie Beck), a lawyer, arrives from Philadelphia, still aching from a breakup with her girlfriend. The day of giving thanks is rendered here as an occasion for counting up disappointments and acknowledging setbacks–though not, in any overly dramatic, self-pitying way.

It’s not every day you see a rowboat floating on a Broadway stage but Boritt has embraced the water as a key element in Therese’s psyche and it literally shimmers. The Blakes are stoic people for the most part, who betray their restlessnesses in critiques of one another that sting one minute and are good-naturedly brushed off the next.

He and lighting designer Keith Parham have mixed airy, empty space for the country – an Impressionistic image of moss and rock fills the back wall – and an oppressive, dark wood interior for life after her marriage. There are none of the melodramatic cataclysms cooked up by the likes of a Therese Raquin; the storms these people face are of modest magnitudes, the kinds that catty, down-to-earth Deirdre (in Houdyshell’s priceless performance) loves to relate, about the lives of her Pennsylvania friends and neighbors. Meantime, over glasses of wine and plates of stuffing, the Blakes disclose the ways in which their lives are spinning in unhappy directions, in jobs ending and illnesses worsening, in finances deteriorating and loyalties eroding. Each of the actors, under Mantello’s superb guidance, creates a character with whom he or she is on deeply intimate terms; you’d swear this group of people had spent a lifetime of turkey days together.

Birney develops in Erik an astute portrait of a man struggling with the limits of his abilities and achievements; Houdyshell is a marvel as a mom who withstands not only the round-the-clock burdens of caring for a dying woman and an embittered husband, but also the snickers of her discomfited daughters. Beck and Steele excel as grown children, with concerns about how much, career-wise, they are chips off their father’s block, and Moayed is delightful, playing an earnest boyfriend seeking to secure his own spot in the family picture. Klein, meanwhile, makes the most of a galvanizing moment late in the play, when Momo’s otherworldly shrieks seem a terrifying channel for the darkness at the edges of the story.

Karam’s skill is such that Brigid and Richard’s apartment–flawlessly realized by set designer David Zinn–feels as if it reasonably accommodates the disclosure of all of Blakes’ tribulations, and the love these people share as well. “The Humans” explores, across an enthralling spectrum of ups and downs, what being a family is all about.

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