There’s a river onstage at Studio 54 for Keira Knightley’s Broadway debut, in the malevolent “Therese Raquin”. It has to have some depth to it, because three of the lead actors (Ms. Knightley included) tumble into the drink midway through this two-act, sexually charged period thriller. And I don’t know if all of that real water was necessary…but it’s pretty damn cool. Plus, it completes and enhances a stark and stultifying mood for the play. Indeed, the artistry of the set design from Beowulf Boritt is astonishing. Rarely do I express honest, child-like wonder upon the changing of a scene. But I’d be dishonest if I claimed that hanging attic room floating in the night sky didn’t supply me with a “wow”. In fact, the entire production wowed me. Sex, murder, lust, suicide, ghosts–what’s not to like? And just in time for Halloween, any tastes for the macabre should be satiated. “Therese Raquin” is a winner.
Therese Raquin (an intense and smoldering Ms. Knightley) has been raised by her overbearing aunt (two-time Tony-winner Judith Light–quite solid, and admirably resisting the urge to chew the scenery during Act II), and with her sickly cousin, Camille (Tony-winner Gabriel Ebert, who does chew some scenery throughout Act I, but it’s marvelously effective). We meet Therese as a young woman. Bored, trapped, despondent. She longs for…something else. However, not seeing any way out of her “predicament”, she ends up accepting her spoiled and egocentric cousin’s marriage proposal. It’s made apparent that options for 19th women are extremely limited. So, they marry, and all three move to Paris, and open a specialty shop while living in an apartment above it. It appears that the marriage is never consummated, for a number of implied reasons. The weekly highlight for the trio, is a Thursday night dominoes gathering with a group of local friends (fine performances from David Patrick Kelly, Jeff Still and Mary Wiseman). One night, Camille brings home Laurent (the dashing Matt Ryan), a work friend that he was acquainted with as a boy. When Laurent and the repressed Therese lock eyes…well, you do the math.
An avoidable tragedy ends Act I, and subsequently the 2nd Act has some difficulty recovering from that first half’s histrionics. It’s not fatal, but the show’s latter part displays some uncertain footing. It does recover towards the finale, however. The first portion of the play is SO strong, that it’s not a surprise when it loses its way a bit after. I’d bet that many will call the astonishing set design of “Therese Raquin”, a case of over-producing. But, I’m okay with it. This is ON Broadway, not OFF. It’s to be expected, and it doesn’t detract much at all. Ms. Knightley is up to the stage challenge here, and she’s an oft-misunderstood film actress. Her vast body of work (she’s only 30!) contains an increasingly eclectic mix of interpretations. I’ll point out her somewhat-maligned interpretation of Sabina Spielrein in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” as being vastly misinterpreted. It’s amongst her best. Her mostly expressionistic first 45 minutes (she barely speaks) of “Therese Raquin”, will probably garner detractors as well. It’s misguided criticism, if so. Her silent work is the strongest stuff. The reputations of both Mr. Ebert and Ms. Light proceeds them, and both are nuanced, fine, and compelling. Matt Harvey as Laurent is occasionally more flash than substance, but the role is written that way, and he ignites the proper amount of heat in his scenes with Therese.
I admired the patient direction of Evan Cabnet. He knows how to let things simmer, and certainly his work for the Metropolitan Opera prepared him for the epic grandiosity of this intense character piece. Of course, Emile Zola first offered up “Therese Raquin” as a novel in 1867. He also was the first to adapt it into a play six years later, and since then it’s been presented in a wide variety of adaptations. This current one was done by Helen Edmundson, who first showcased this version in London last year. I was told that she was “in the building” during the performance I experienced, with the impression given that she’s been tweaking and editing throughout the rehearsal period. She’s succeeded, although I felt the scene transitions towards the end of Act II were hurried to a fault. It’s a minor complaint, and something I can see working itself out more smoothly as this limited run continues. “Therese Raquin”, overall, is truly mesmerizing theatre.
This show receives a rating of 8