Keira Knightley says she has been approached at least three times to play Thérèse Raquin in one or another adaptation of the 1867 Zola novel. She finally succumbed when offered Helen Edmundson’s version, figuring there must be a reason everyone imagined her in the role of an orphan turned adulteress turned accomplice to murder. That reason is evident in the Roundabout production that opened tonight at Studio 54, in which Knightley, well known from films including Bend It Like Beckham and Pirates of the Caribbean, makes a stark and somewhat counterintuitive Broadway debut. She is compelling and articulate, especially when silent, and brings to the morose tale the banked-fire quality that seems to illuminate such material from within. Which is a good thing, since it isn’t much illuminated from without.
That’s no one’s fault, really, unless it’s Zola’s; he saw himself as a kind of literary chemist, mixing personality types like reagents and letting them do what they will. We know what type Thérèse is from the second she appears, before the house lights are even fully down: She’s the type who is permanently on edge, looking for a way to escape a life of crushing unhappiness. The orphan ward of her aunt, Madame Raquin, she has been raised in the shadow of that foolish and imperious lady’s son, Camille, a spoiled hypochondriac she is forced to wed as soon as she turns 21. This mating of first cousins is not, naturally, a passionate one: “Now that we are married,” the infantile Camille sniggers as they get into bed together for the first time, “I could see your breasts if I wanted to.” He never does.
Enter Laurent, a school chum of Camille’s, now relocated, like the Raquins, from the countryside to Paris. Laurent’s temperament, at least as played by the handsome British actor Matt Ryan, is technically known as “hot.” His affair with Thérèse, which eventually leads them — 150-year-old spoiler alert! — to bump off Camille and go crazy, is believably, animally passionate, and as predictable (Zola might say) as the reaction of copper and nitric acid. It is also, unfortunately, as quick to spend itself, and once it does there is not enough drama left to energize the rest of the story. The drawn-out dénouement, no matter how many ghastly sound effects (courtesy of the sound designer Josh Schmidt) are thrown at it, is basically a slow return to the grimness of the reality in which Thérèse (and the others) were always trapped.
That grimness is beautifully realized, at least; Beowulf Boritt’s sets, lit exquisitely by Keith Parham, are all gesso and grisaille, suggesting a prepared canvas with no painting on it. (Laurent fancies himself a painter.) A pool of water takes up the back half of the stage, and if you know the novel you know why. When the Raquins move to the city so that Camille can feed his grandiosity on a bigger stage, their new apartment, black and oblong as a coffin, descends from the flies like a huge steel press. Thérèse is the flower it is intended to crush, but really no one is spared. What happens to the repellent Camille (brilliantly played by the usually so adorable Gabriel Ebert) at least feels deserved, and you won’t spare many tears on his mother’s famous stroke (rendered with disciplined subtlety by a witchy Judith Light). But when the leading lovers self-destruct, an audience needs something bigger to hold onto — transcendence, condemnation, poetry, something! — and Zola simply doesn’t provide it.
Edmundson, a seasoned adapter of classic novels, evidently chose to retain that absence from the original (and from Zola’s own dramatization, first performed in 1873). You can’t call it a mistake, though it means that the play gets less and less dramatic as it grows more eventful. The rejiggering of the timeline to compress the action, structuring it around a series of Thursday-evening domino games at the Raquins’ Paris apartment, only exacerbates this problem, and leaves some lumpy subplots and red herrings in its wake. (The domino players and their little dramas are left somewhat marooned.) Beyond that, Thérèse Raquin suffers from a typical case of adaptation sickness, a digestive malady that almost always results when a playwright eats a Penguin classic. Even a relatively short novel like this one offers too large a meal. The setups are lovely, and then comes the hasty glut.
The director Evan Cabnet’s unusually handsome staging, dominated by the sculptural deployment of the actors’ bodies, often in silhouette, in a way highlights this failing, making the massive repression of the opening scenes powerfully eloquent but offering diminishing returns thereafter. Similarly, Edmundson’s deliciously stingy dialogue before intermission tells us more than all the expressiveness after. She seems to have been aware of this imbalance because she studded the second half of her script (which was first performed in England last year) with expressionistic touches such as a rotting corpse that “issues forth” from the lovers’ bed. Probably wisely, Cabnet cut these, recognizing them as desperate interventions. Zola’s naturalism makes Thérèse Raquin an unlikely candidate for supernatural treatment.
Also for stage treatment, even aside from the built-in pitfalls of the genre. The production gets just about everything right, from Knightley’s jitters and Ebert’s pastiness down to the delicate little caricatures of the domino players. Jane Greenwood’s costumes could tell the story all by themselves; has there ever been a sadder wedding outfit than the one Thérèse wears to marry Camille? But no skill anyone might apply can reverse the trajectory of a story that dries up just when it gets juicy. That too is in the Zola; being neither a lecturer nor a libertine, he has no stake in the story’s emotional or moral outcome. Filth and depravity — two words that were used to describe the novel upon its initial serialization — were of no interest to him on the page, no matter how much they are to us in the audience. Once the lovers fall out of love, so do we.
Thérèse Raquin is at Studio 54 through January 10.