By Tulis McCall
Woe is me. Shame and scandal in the Family. That would be the Raquin family. And the perpetrator of the scandal would be none other than Ms. Thérèse Raquin herself. In the current production of Thérèse Raquin at Studio 54, adapted by Helen Edmundson from the novel by Émile Zola– there is enough shame, scandal, and a few other distasteful elements to go around the entire stage with enough left over to share with the audience. The audiences however are politely refusing.
Written in the mid 19th century, this is a story where the author was looking to “study temperaments and not characters.” This production has taken Zola’s intention one step further and presents archetypes who, for all their connection, could be zooming about the stage on kick scooters. These characters move to and fro, but they do not connect, no matter how much they insist on telling us they do.
Thérèse Raquin (Keira Knightley in her Broadway debut) was a motherless child, brought to her aunt, Madame Raquin (Judith Light) by her father who was a seaman. He had married an Algerian woman (daring in 1867 as well as today) who had died in childbirth. He left his daughter on dry land and never returned. Too bad because this gal might have done a whole lot better out on the sea. Mme. Raquin is a lonely woman whose only purpose in life is to protect her son Camille (Gabriel Ebert). From wind and rain, from fever and frost, from the sun and moon etc. etc. etc. As a result Camille has grown up to be petulant, narcissistic and sexless. When Thérèse turns 21 she is married off to Camille much as a person would check something off their bucket list. There now. There that’s done.
Soon after the marriage Camille decides they will move to Paris. The will get a store with an apartment above it. He will busy himself with – whatever – and the two women will mind the store. Once in Paris they meet up with old friends, one of whom, Laurent (Matt Ryan) has an effect on Thérèse much like a lit match t set to a fuse.
Thérèse is pulled to Laurent like a magnet. Indeed there is so much indication in Knightley’s staring it is almost difficult to watch. When they are finally alone in her bedroom, Laurent takes Thérèse with such speed that if you had a small sneezing episode you would miss the entire thing. Their affair soon turns to addiction, so we are told, which leads to the inevitable. Camille must go, and the end – like all good tragedies – will not be pretty.
The actors all do their bit – no one phones in their parts – but they each seem ill suited to the task at hand. Ms. Knightley is given the task of staring with meaning for much of the play and is prone to exhibitions of pain that have no raison d’être. She is left in pools of light at the end of most scenes as if the director, Evan Cabnet, was not certain we would get the point: that Thérèse is the center of this universe. Mr. Ebert, Camille, is peevish and without a smidgen of redeeming qualities. Ms. Light ages tragically and gracefully, although her precise eye movements after a stroke do not seem authentic. Mr. Ryan’s Laurent is has three modes: lover, conqueror and tyrant. The neighbors who come to play dominos once a week – with no wine? – are shadows of ships that pass in the night.
What does emerge – intended or not – is the idea of women as property. Thérèse owns nothing, and is not allowed to. Her husband owns all their material goods, including Thérèse. Thus Thérèse appears not so much in love with Laurent as she is in love with the idea of making her own decisions however wrong they may be. She is demanding to have an identity even when others seek to deny her. And even as she makes the leap from one bed to another Laurent makes her promise that she will belong to him forever. She does. Exchange of padlock for handcuffs as it were. Mme Raquin is trapped in her son’s orbit. Even Suzanne (Mary Wiseman) the daughter of their domino guest Superintendent Michaud (David Patrick Kelly) is brought along so that her father will have companionship and someone to boss about. In one scene she reveals that a gentleman has taken her out walking, and she is excited. In the next, the gentleman has been sent packing because the father deemed him not worthy enough to sacrifice having his daughter at his personal beck and call. It is brave writing for an era when women had no rights as individuals. The Pankhursts, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony were just around the corner. Zola, it seems, heard their approaching footsteps.
The story of Thérèse Raquin is a supreme tragedy. Made all the more dour by the artistic choices – sets, costume and lights all serve to smother us. The night I attended there was extensive shuffling of programs and coughing – indicators that the audience is not engaged. It is one thing to tell a tragic tale with precision and an eye to pinpoints of light. It is another to lock us all in the basement with the characters until we get the feeling that there is no way out. At the show’s conclusion I beat a path to the door just to be certain my world had not been swallowed up by the Raquin family.
Thérèse Raquin by Helen Edmundson, based on the book by Émile Zola, Directed by Evan Cabnet
WITH Keira Knightley as Therese, Gabriel Ebert as Camille, Matt Ryan as Laurent, Judith Light as Madame Raquin, David Patrick Kelly as Michaud, Jeff Still as Grivet and Mary Wiseman as Suzanne; Also Glynis Bell, Alex Mickiewicz, Sara Topham and Ray Virta
‘Thérèse Raquin’ runs through Jan. 2 at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, Manhattan; 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.