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Theatre in Review: Thérèse Raquin (Roundabout Theatre Company/Studio 54)

Matt Ryan, Keira Knightley. Photo: Joan Marcus

I've never been so grateful for a murder; when the title character of the new play at Studio 54 gets down to the business of aiding and abetting her lover in killing her husband, a very sleepy production finally acquires a bit of energy. Until then, the production is like a lurid Madame Tussauds' exhibit -- horrifying in theory but in fact posed and stiff. Helen Edmundson has closely followed the narrative of Émile Zola's novel, but she and her director, Evan Cabnet, cast such a pall on the proceedings that you would never know it is about people driven mad by lust and guilt.

Thérèse is an orphan, raised in a provincial French village by her aunt, Madame Raquin; without being consulted, she is affianced to her cousin Camille, a big, sickly baby of a man who is used to his mother's doting treatment and has little or no sexual interest in his new wife. The trio moves to Paris and opens a shop, but their lives remain crushingly the same: Thérèse basically sleepwalks through life -- her shoulders hunched, her voice a monotone, her face a glassy-eyed mask of ennui; as played by Keira Knightley, in her emotionless compliance she resembles an escapee from The Walking Dead. Edmundson lays out the little family's killing routine -- including the Thursday night domino parties, which follow a precise routine, down to the placement of the table on which they play -- that one begins to feel Thérèse's boredom a little too vividly.

Everything changes when Camille brings home Laurent, an old friend from the country. A single glance at the inordinately handsome Laurent and you can tell that trouble has entered the room. He is bored with his office job, dreams idly of being a painter, and clearly has an eye for the ladies. Before long, he is sneaking into Thérèse's bedroom for frantic, clandestine sexual encounters. After their first time, when, without removing their clothes, he pins her against the wall and takes her rapidly with animal ferocity, the previously comatose Thérèse cries out, "There is some blood in my veins!"

One knows what she means, for if a production ever needed a blood transfusion, this is it. Once Laurent and Thérèse, driven by their consuming need to have each other daily, arrange to drown Camille on a boating trip, the action becomes admittedly more engaging, especially after they are married but find they cannot consummate their relationship, what with guilt gnawing at them, not to mention the weird noises they hear in the night. It's not bad enough that they must go through their days with a portrait of Camille on the wall, seemingly judging them from beyond the grave; Madame Raquin, overhearing Laurent discussing Camille's killing, has a stroke, becoming a silent, staring presence that they can't escape. By now, Thérèse and Laurent have worked up a good head of disgust with each other, and Thérèse can't stop eyeing that knife hidden in the dining table drawer.

Still, these are crimes of passion minus the passion. Perhaps in an attempt to capture Zola's coolly detached eye, Edmundson structures the action in a series of shortish episodes that don't build dramatically and often feel arbitrarily cut off. Cabnet's staging has the measured pace of a funeral procession; from the get-go, he employs a variety of techniques -- solemn tableaux, a doom-laden musical score by Josh Schmidt, a forbiddingly monochromatic production design -- meant to signal that the characters are on the road to ruin. If Knightley can't knit Thérèse's mood swings into a character who excites our interest (if nor our sympathy), Matt Ryan makes a suitably impetuous lover as Laurent, and his disintegration is more convincingly achieved. Gabriel Ebert's Camille is all childish self-involvement; for all his grating qualities, however, it's possible to feel his terror and surprise when Laurent turns on him, suddenly and viciously. The great Judith Light is impeccable as Madame Raquin, bustling about oblivious to the turbulent emotions gathering like storm clouds over her household, doting on Camille, and declining to a harrowing degree after his death. She makes something genuinely hair-raising out of the scene in which the paralyzed Madame Raquin struggles to trace out, with one finger, an accusation against Thérèse and Laurent in front of their guests. David Patrick Kelly plays one of the Raquins' regular guests, a retired police superintendent who, perhaps, is a little too attached to his young and marriageable niece (Mary Wiseman).

Beowulf Boritt's bold production design places the exterior scenes on an open stage backed by an abstract gray-and-sepia drop; there is an upstage river for the murder, ensuring all three leads get sopping wet. When the Raquins move to Paris, Thérèse stands alone on stage while their cramped black sunlight-free apartment flies in, encasing her like a sarcophagus; it provides the play's most bravura moment, an ideal expression of the petit-bourgeois existence that threatens to choke Thérèse's soul. Yet, for all its invention, a certain visual monotony sets in and one begins to long for a dash of color. Keith Parham's lighting works hard at making striking chiaroscuro effects, so much so that, mostly in the first act, the actors' faces are sometimes obscured. Jane Greenwood's costumes, as always beyond criticism in their period accuracy, are also part of the general no-color approach, but she slyly heightens the difference in attractiveness between Camille and Laurent; she also draws a telling contrast between Thérèse's plain wardrobe and the frillier look adopted by the superintendent's niece.

Overall, this is a generally dispiriting evening. Zola's novel has been hugely influential in American literature: One sees it in the murder via lake boat in Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy and in the pulp thrills of James Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. (In a sense, it can be said to be a key document in the creation of film noir.) But the most fatal thing about this murder tale is its lack of excitement. Edmundson, Cabnet, and company clearly understand Zola's importance, but they stumble badly in trying to communicate it. -- David Barbour


(6 November 2015)

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