REVIEW: Evan Cabnet’s ‘Thérèse Raquin’ brings tale of unfulfilled love to Broadway

From left, Keira Knightley and Judith Light star in Roundabout Theatre Company's new production of Thérèse Paquin. Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus.
From left, Keira Knightley and Judith Light star in Roundabout Theatre Company’s new production of Thérèse Raquin. Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus.

NEW YORK — The Roundabout Theatre Company’s new production of Thérèse Raquin, adapted by Helen Edmundson from the original story by Émile Zola, is a gripping, seductive drama that features powerful acting and resounding passion. Keira Knightley, star of Atonement and the Pirates of the Caribbean films, makes her Broadway debut as the title character, a woman distraught in her loveless marriage to her cousin, Camille (Tony winner Gabriel Ebert). Her unfulfilled feelings are swept up by the debonair Laurent (Matt Ryan), a friend of Camille’s who stops by the house to stir up trouble. Completing the main cast is Tony winner Judith Light, playing Camille’s devoted mother and friend to Thérèse.

Knightley’s character actually doesn’t say much in the first act of the drama. She’s relegated to a secondary role because her husband steals all the air in the room. Something keeps her silent, away from the domino playing at the kitchen table, away from the family’s plans and joy, away from anyone who comes into their lives. This portrait of sadness also keeps Thérèse away from understanding on behalf of the audience. She is shrouded in mystery and depression, and her solemn self almost goes unsaid among the visitors to the house. When questions are asked of her, Camille steps in, usually with a disparaging laugh and nod, filling in the blanks and putting on the air of someone who has taken married beneath his stature.

However, the joke is on Camille because he’s a pompous, self-centered character, someone who willingly disrespects Thérèse by keeping his expectations of her so low.

The same can’t be said for Madame Paquin (Light) who is a seemingly nice person but one who is oblivious to Thérèse’s retreat from the family and eventual affair with Laurent. The mother adores her son, and by proxy her daughter-in-law, and Madame doesn’t want to be concerned with anything or anyone that drags down the mood in a room. The Raquins, who first start in a country house and then move to the city, enjoy conversation and hosting friends, two items that are not the forte of Thérése.

When Laurent begins his seduction, and Thérèse responds in kind, the central character changes drastically. In front of the family, she’s still reserved and sitting on the sides. However, when she’s in the bedroom with Laurent, she’s more talkative and happy. Laurent sees her beauty and a possible future together.

From left, Gabriel Ebert, Matt Ryan and Keira Knightley take a row on the watery stage of Studio 54. Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus.
From left, Gabriel Ebert, Matt Ryan and Keira Knightley take a row on the watery stage of Studio 54. Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus.

As the play progresses, the characters try to make their imaginary futures a reality, and this causes much concern and grief in the Raquin household.

The staging of the play is one of its strongest qualities. Cabnet emphasizes intimacy and love, no matter the consequences. He is able to harness beautiful acting from the four main characters. Knightley is quite strong in the title role, imbuing the character with a sense of loss and believable lamentation. Light, an American theater legend, has such a difficult arc in the show, rising and falling with her emotions and outlook on life. The actress is able to play the part with respect and dignity for the demands of the role. Ebert and Ryan are well cast. Ebert, a Tony winner for Matilda, is annoying and cloying as Camille, while Ryan is romantic and daring as the interloper.

Beowulf Borrit’s set design is startling and stark. The backdrop of the Studio 54 stage is a pool of water that plays a pivotal part in much of the play’s action. One can actually watch the characters row a boat and skip along submerged rocks. It’s a beautiful design that fades into the background when the Raquin’s cozy, dark house enters the foreground.

Edmundson’s words are expertly chosen, and she does her best with a difficult to decipher central character. Because Thérèse listens and doesn’t speak for much of the first act, it’s up to Knightley and her colleagues to make this character an important part of the dramatic fabric. When she finally opens up, expressing her love for Laurent and disdain for Camille, the audience believes in her transformation, her power, her ability to forge on.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Thérèse Raquin
  • By Helen Edmundson, based on the story by Émile Zola
  • Directed by Evan Cabnet
  • Featuring Keira Knightley, Matt Ryan, Judith Light and Gabriel Ebert
  • Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with intermission
  • Thérèse Raquin is currently playing Studio 54 at 254 W. 54th St. in Manhattan, N.Y. Click here for more information on tickets.
  • Rating: ★★★★

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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