Review: Keira Knightley shines but ‘Therese Raquin’ doesn’t

30 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Thérèse Raquin’ review: Keira Knightley washes up in soggy Broadway drama.

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.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. That’s what audiences are likely to ask about the histrionic staging of Helen Edmundson’s new adaptation of Emile Zola’s 1867 novel, “Therese Raquin,” which stars Keira Knightley as the bored young wife who has a tempestuous affair with the best friend of her spoiled Mama’s boy of a husband.

Portrayed with a dedicated and joyless intensity by the film star Keira Knightley in her Broadway debut, she makes her entrance in the play’s opening seconds in stern, silhouetted profile, carrying a bowl of water and a heap of bad karma. 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. 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. 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.

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. 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. 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. 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. 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 forth. 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. 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.

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. 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. 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.

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. 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.

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 Chinatown apartment that the younger daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Richard (Arian Moayed) have recently rented. 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. 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. 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 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. 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. 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.

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. 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. 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. Sets, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Keith Parham; sound & original music, Josh Schmidt; hair & wigs, Tom Watson; fight director, J. 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. 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.

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. 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. 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.

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. 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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