New York City Theater
What’s with 19th century heroines like Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina and Thérèse Raquin? Restless, dissatisfied in their marriages, they get their sexual kicks elsewhere, resulting only a little while in happiness. Eventually, they all commit suicide, perhaps punished by their male authors for their daring.
Roundabout’s new production of “Thérèse Raquin” is as much a portrait of a chronically morose woman as it is of a woman filled with notions of romance. True, she perks up when her nerdy husband, Camille, brings home a studly friend, Laurent. They soon bed each other, an interlude that turns out to be short and sour.
The play and production, while often throat-catching, are deliciously lurid and exaggerated. Who can resist an evening that progresses from dreary to romantic to murderous to retributive? Characters don’t walk; they slink, as if concerned that their footfalls will interfere with the embedded lust, death and revenge. Director Evan Cabnet, with the assistance of Beowulf Boritt’s striking set design, doesn’t shy from the script’s Gothic aspects. Boritt’s sets vary from dusty-looking flat to cramped studio to foreboding river that will eventually swallow Camille’s body, courtesy of Laurent and Thérèse.
Now free to marry, the two lovers are incapacitated by their deed and, under the baleful eye of Camille’s stroke-struck mother, Mme. Raquin, who learns of the crime, they come apart. Suspicious of each other, terrified of getting caught, their lust dulled, they have no options.
Adapted by Helen Edmundson from Émile Zola’s once-shocking 1867 novel, the tale has, understandably, lost some of its sting. Nor does it rise much above the level of melodrama, since the characters are hardly developed.
Given those drawbacks, however, the evening has its own merits. Movie star Keira Knightley is a haunted Thérèse, hollow-eyed and fearful at first, awakening to Laurent’s sexual advances (the love scenes are brutal), then fearful again as she feels pursued by Camille’s ghost (cue mysterious sounds). Her darting eyes, her shrinking stance, her scurrying, soon morph into purpose and determination, then near-hysterics. Knightley’s range is impressive.
As Laurent, Matt Ryan is as self-assured as a preying lion, aware of his appeal to others yet removed from, and feeling above, them. He’s an ambiguous character in Ryan’s hands, unseating our expectations. Gabriel Ebert is a goofy Camille, while Judith Light, shrinking physically, grows in power as she grows in knowledge. Hers is a particularly effective performance.
“Thérèse Raquin” does go on too long, and some of it is laughable. But it’s a rarity that does, if not exactly thrill, provide a shock or three. At the least, this handsome production offers a window onto a world of hypocrisy and repression. It’s a subtle commentary on the role of women in a changing world.
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 10, 2015