Nobody applauds Keira Knightley when she first appears on stage for her Broadway debut in Thérèse Raquin. The audience doesn’t recognize her; she’s in the background under faded light, the third character in what is mostly a two-character scene in the breathtaking adaptation of Emile Zola’s breakthrough novel of adultery and murder.
That staging is a deliberate choice by director Evan Cabnet to avoid the standard Broadway reaction to the stage entrance of a movie star; it is one of the production’s many smart choices.
If Knightley sheds the usual star aura, the 30-year-old actress takes stunning advantage of the techniques she has learned in her 20-year screen career, marked by such roles as her Oscar-nominated performances in The Imitation Game and in Pride and Prejudice as well as her involvement in such blockbusters as the Star Wars and the Pirates of the Caribbean series.
For the first half hour of the play, Knightley says hardly a word as Thérèse, the orphaned niece of Madame Raquin (Judith Light), who took her in as a toddler but now treats her as a servant. In that first scene, set in France in the 1860’s, Madame is administering to her sickly and immature son Camille (Gabriel Ebert), Thérèse’s cousin, who sees Thérèse as somewhere between a playmate and a plaything. He bizarrely insists that she swallow a dose of his medicines before he does, and shoves her giggling, as if they were still children.
Soon, Madame Raquin arranges for the two cousins to marry. Thérèse goes along meekly, her posture modest and awkward, her affect withdrawn, passive and detached. But – and this is where Knightley’s screen experience surely serves her well – her stone-faced expression registers the merest flicker of repressed feeling, but it’s all we need to understand what she’s going through.
That face looks thunderstruck when Camille brings home an old friend, the handsome Laurent (portrayed by the handsome Matt Ryan).
What unfolds after that first encounter feels as inevitable as Greek tragedy or 1940’s film noir. What keeps the story from feeling distant in this effective adaptation by playwright Helen Edmundson– what keeps the modern cynic from thinking “Why couldn’t she just get a divorce?” — is a production that engages our senses even more than our sense.
The cast helps things along, especially Judith Light, who is transformed as Madame Raquin, an old lady permanently dressed in mourning. Over the course of the play, she subtly evolves in our perception from autocratic to kindly or at least well-meaning, and wins our sympathy when she becomes literally grief-stricken.
Gabriel Ebert, who’s made something of a specialty of portraying jerks – he won a Tony as the crooked used-car salesman and reckless parent Mr. Wormwood in Matilda – here dials it down so that his character is off-putting in a less cartoonish way. If it feels as if his jerkiness somewhat stacks the deck, making his victimization feel justified, blame that on Zola. Matt Ryan is suitably attractive; if his interpretation of Laurent leaves out hints of what the script suggests as a sociopathic personality, his chemistry with Knightley more than compensates.
The director takes advantage of Knightley’s expressive face by fiddling around with cinematically inspired close-ups – there is a generous use of spotlights on Knightley. But he also treats us to some awesome long shots. Beowulf Boritt’s sets are gorgeous: the backdrop of endless sky; the sloshing river of real water; the dark cramped Raquin home that mechanically falls into place before our eyes; Laurent’s attic apartment, suspended in mid-air and surrounded by the stars.
These sets, in concert with Jane Greenwood’s costumes, Keith Parham’s lighting and Josh Schmidt’s sound design and musical underscoring, beautifully track the changes in mood and in the very plot. The sky and the water and the very walls feel like characters themselves, and contribute almost as much as Keira Knightley’s compelling performance to this magnetic story of a woman trapped in a loveless arrangement, who is set free, only to be trapped once more by guilt.
The Roundabout Theatre production of Thérèse Raquin is on stage at Studio 54 (254 West 54th Street, New York, NY, 10019, East of Eighth Avenue) through January 3, 2016.
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