*published on 30 Oct 2015 in The EDGE
“Thérèse Raquin” began life in 1897 as a novel by Emile Zola and has seen various reincarnations over the years. In 1980 the BBC serialized the book with the wonderful Kate Nelligan in the eponymous role. In 2001, Harry Connick, Jr. took a stab at envisioning the work as a musical entitled, “Thou Shalt Not” and now the Roundabout Theatre Company is mounting this gripping tale in its Studio 54 space, starring Keira Knightley in her Broadway debut.
We meet Thérèse Raquin in this reinterpretation by Helen Edmunson, in the starkly beautiful set by Beowulf Boritt, and she seems to be literally hollowed out she seems so fragile, thin and timid. We learn that Therese’s father, a sea captain, left her when she was two in the care of his sister, Madame Raquin, after the death of her Algerian mother.
Madame Raquin is firmly evinced by one of our great actors, two-time Tony winner Judith Light, currently in the Golden Globe winning series, “Transparent.” Thérèse grew up with her cousin Camille who in manhood is a simpering valetudinarian, ever chasing a constant illness. Needless to say that with a mother who dotes on his every simper, Camille has become an unbearable selfish prig.
Of course Thérèse is wedded to him. She seems emptier with every scene in the dark, unhappy home. Camille, played with unctuous perfection by Gabriel Ebert, decides the troika must move to Paris. Here the family hosts a gaggle of petty bourgeois guests who come promptly at 9 p.m. to play games and drink, making sure the table is moved by millimeters, a metaphor for the strict, unwavering nature of this class. David Patrick Kelly, Jeff Still and Mary Wiseman provide ample color and distraction as the guests who visit weekly to gossip and support the main characters. And they will need it.
Thérèse and Madame Raquin open a small shop, and Camille finally lands a job at the Railway Company. Here he meets a childhood friend, the very sexy, seething Laurent played with a wild abandon by Matt Ryan. In the initial scene when Laurent enters the Raquin home, Thérèse is still a timid mouse, small voiced and bloodless. But as Laurent speaks, she arcs her body toward him as if magnetized by his manly force, until one is sure she will tip out of her strait-backed chair in order to be ever closer to him. It is a genius maneuver and whether it was the direction by Evan Cabnet, which is marvelous, or the inspiration of Knightley, it is a silent action that speaks volumes.
They begin an intense affair and Thérèse is transformed in Laurent’s arms, and here we witness Knightley’s subtle acting chops come to the fore. When Laurent thrusts her upon the wall of her own bedroom, she moans, “There is finally blood in my veins!” We believe her; she is transformed.
Since this is a romance, tinged with mystery and at least a little ghoulish, horrifying and haunting, I am loath to give away the full story for those who did not have to read the it in French Lit 101. It is a show that moves with considerable pace as characters are compelled and cursed in equal measure. Again I commend the lighting by Keith Parham and a setting so compelling that in a boating scene I imagine those in the front row may be leaving the theater wet.
This is heavy, heady stuff and it was only marred for me by a jarring tittering from the audience who perhaps was seeking so jokes to relieve a melodramatic evening part “Tell Tale Heart,” part “Romeo and Juliet” and all from two centuries ago when people endured their stations in life and waited with baited breath for interstitial moments of fulfillment and might well do anything to enhance their staid lives.
“Thérèse Raquin” runs through Jan. 3, 2016 at The Roundabout Theatre Company, 254 West 54th St. in New York. For information or tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/tickets/reserve.aspx?pid=20243