Review: In ‘Thérèse Raquin,’ Keira Knightley as a Baleful Adulteress

30 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Therese Raquin’: Theater Review.

Emile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin, published in 1867, portrays an adulterous couple driven to murder the woman’s husband. Keira Knightley doesn’t say much during Thérèse Raquin, the stage version of the Emile Zola novel that the English film star has chosen for her widely anticipated Broadway debut.

From the moment we first set eyes on the title character of “Thérèse Raquin,” the bleak literary melodrama that opened on Thursday night at Studio 54, we know without a doubt that she is doomed, doomed, doomed.Keira Knightley makes her Broadway debut as a woman who escapes her stultifying marriage for another kind of hell in this new adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel.

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. Indeed, I began to wonder during the first act whether the two-time Oscar nominee wasn’t wishing she could be somewhere else – with her infant daughter Edie, perhaps, who isn’t yet six months old. Or at the very least in a play that allowed Knightley a greater chance to project her undeniable talent across the footlights rather than what here resembles a vaguely ponderous sequence of set-up shots or tableaux for some hypothetical film of the same material.

It makes for a dispiriting Broadway debut for Knightley, an Oscar nominee for “Pride & Prejudice” and “The Imitation Game.” She’s known for classics, so Emile Zola’s 148-year old novel is familiar turf. And though you may assume, dear innocent theatergoer, that things can only lighten up for this poor blighted creature, she will continue to march in lock step with an unforgiving destiny for the succeeding two and a half hours.

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. So something has gone wrong with the Roundabout’s lugubrious and giggly adaptation, scripted by Helen Edmundson and directed by Evan Cabnet, which stars Keira Knightley as the haunted and yearning Thérèse. Wormwood in “Matilda,” brings the same goofy sensibility to Camille Raquin, the sickly only child and heir of the doting Madame Raquin (Judith Light, regal but with attitude). The first performance made headlines when a clearly disturbed spectator proposed to the actress from the house, throwing flowers on to the stage before he was himself thrown out of the theatre. The man is such a pampered baby (“You are delicate, you will always be delicate,” his mother croons), he’s oblivious to the charms of his cousin and bride, Therese, played by Knightley with all her grace and beauty well hidden under a barrel.

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. The setting is 19th century France. (The painterly set and lighting are by Beowulf Boritt and Kevin Parham.) Orphaned Thérèse is a ward of her prim aunt (Judith Light) and the reluctant wife of her sickly cousin, Camille (Gabriel Ebert).

A sprained wrist led to the cancellation of a subsequent show, merely fueling reports about everything except the performance itself. (Nor, oddly, are Knightley’s two West End credits – The Misanthrope and The Children’s Hour – referenced in her biography in the Therese Raquin programme.) Knightley’s commitment to this latest part is never in doubt. But even for such a bona-fide fool as Camille (“My funny little cousin,” he calls his bride), the characterization is much too light-hearted (and empty-headed) for this Grand Guignol tale of murderous lust and obsession. The show is so determined to demonstrate how destiny never relaxes its stranglehold on its characters that any sparks of pleasure are snuffed out almost before they appear. 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.

That much is true, whether in Therese’s guise as woebegone wife to the pompous Camille (Gabriel Ebert, a Tony-winner for Broadway’s Matilda), or, later, as the complicit partner in murderous crime with her husband’s friend, Laurent (a bearded Matt Ryan, the production’s second Briton), who becomes Therese’s lover – and her destroyer, as well. “Let me live,” she says in one of several outbursts that Thérèse allows herself once divested of human company. Tasked to play a delicate and sensitive woman smothered under the confinements of self-satisfied middle-class respectability, she slouches around her mother-in-law’s bourgeois flat looking petulant and behaving rudely in front of visitors.

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. And when Camille brings home his friend Laurent (Matt Ryan, who looks smashing in Jane Greenwood’s form-fitting period garb), she gawks at this conceited stud with the open-mouthed adoration of a lovesick adolescent. 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.

The actual sex shown – no foreplay, five thrusts, breathless collapse – is not precisely beguiling. (Bizarrely, this is the second play in a row in which Cabnet insists on having women shagged atop the nearest bit of cabinetry.) These lovers murder Camille via rowboat, then suffer the damp and horrifying consequences. There’s an unfortunate moment when this Thérèse pulls close to her crotch the chair in which Laurent has just been sitting so that she can “have” the clearly smitten artist by proxy.

Knightley hangs onto Therese’s girlish demeanor until Laurent puts her out of her misery by seducing her — at which point, Knightley comes alive and delivers Zola’s lushly romantic sentiments with the exuberant joy of a woman famished for love and ripe for a lusty affair. “There is blood in my veins,” she cries. “I thought they had bled me dry. 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.

And the eventual guilt surrounding the couple’s malfeasance is accompanied by enough sound effects to posit the director Evan Cabnet’s production as Broadway’s unexpected answer to The Woman in Black. Mortuarial imagery is perhaps appropriate to a play inspired by a novel of which its author wrote, “I simply applied to two living bodies the analytical methods that surgeons apply to corpses.” The bodies in question belong to Thérèse and Laurent (the Royal Shakespeare Company alumnus Matt Ryan), her husband’s handsome best friend, who begin an obsessive affair that carries them beyond reason. As produced by New York’s not-for-profit Roundabout Theatre Company, and in the same theatre where they presented Alan Cumming’s fabled Broadway turn in Cabaret, the venture certainly looks like a million bucks even if Knightley, according to The Hollywood Reporter, is appearing for just $1300 a week, a fee well below her market value. Flattened me until I was a pressed flower.” Beowulf Boritt’s astonishing set — a massive horizontal structure of dark woods and gloomy furnishings that swoops down from the flies like a raptor — visually conveys that ominous feeling of being buried alive. Beowulf Boritt’s arresting (and restless) designs embrace painterly abstraction and an onstage river as well as a detailed Parisian abode that at one point looks as if it is going to swallow Therese whole.

But once they do, by drowning him in a bona fide body of water that has been provided for this production’s first-act climax, guilt robs them of their lust. Among the Anglo-American cast, it’s worth noting New York stage veteran Judith Light as Therese’s doom-laden mother-in-law and the return to Broadway for the first time, since he was Horatio to Jude Law’s Hamlet in 2009, of the charismatic Ryan.

But the play really catches fire when Laurent, grasping the danger of their affair, speaks his secret wish out loud. “My God, I wish we could be rid of him!” — and then passes that responsibility on to Therese. “Couldn’t you get rid of him?” Getting rid of the buffoonish Camille brings out the best in everyone. Thérèse eventually trades up to the real thing during clandestine trysts with Laurent that come off as mechanical, not mind-bending or soul-stirring. The great problem with fatalism as a form of entertainment is that its monotone palette quickly turns monotonous unless it’s generously spiced with suspense and empathy. (Think of the riveting James M. 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. “Where will you take me?” Therese asks the river. “Let it be somewhere light.

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. The supporting cast fares better, with Light predictably elegant and composed, even after her character suffers a paralytic stroke, and Ebert wringing laughs from Camille’s bleating tyranny.

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.

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. Sets, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Keith Parham; sound & original music, Josh Schmidt; hair & wigs, Tom Watson; fight director, J. 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. 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. 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. Setting her cap for Laurent, this Thérèse brings to mind the succubus vamps portrayed on screen by Theda Bara a century ago, except without the promise of fun in the sack. 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.

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. It is also a style of acting that clashes so violently with that of the others onstage that you wonder why people don’t realize from the get-go that there’s something dangerously wrong with this baleful young woman.

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. Then again, all of the cast members — who also include David Patrick Kelly, Mary Wiseman and Jeff Still as friends (lord knows why) of the Raquin family — seem to belong to different theatrical universes. 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.

Ebert delivers the sort of tic-driven, crooked-line caricature for which he won a Tony in “Matilda the Musical,” where the style felt more appropriate to the content. 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. Light, known for her incisive portraits of sharp-tongued women, here delivers a not entirely fitting study in self-effacing goodness, which makes Thérèse’s anger toward her mother-in-law seem especially churlish. 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. Ryan portrays Laurent with the jaunty, casual air of a boulevardier, and it’s hard to credit him as a man undone by relentless desire. (When he tells Thérèse, “I’m addicted to you,” the audience laughs; but then, there’s a fair amount of such laughter throughout.) The sex scenes between Laurent and Thérèse are so brief and blunt that they hardly seem worth killing for.

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