houKeira Knightley is routinely considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. So in making her Broadway debut she has bravely chosen the extremely dowdy, downtrodden heroine of Emile Zola’s “Therese Raquin.” And to her immense credit, she pulls it off. In spades.
“Therese Raquin” has got to be one of the darkest, most depressing plays I’ve ever seen, but it is rather like an edge-of-your seat noir thriller due to Knightley’s and her great supporting casts excellent, full-throttle performances.
And it’s such a James M.Cain/Raymond Chandler like story that you can’t help thinking about of all things the film classic “Double Indemnity” which starred Barbara Stanwyck at her wickedest and sexiest as a house-wife serial killer. Knightley is right up there already with the screen greats, having two Oscar nominations under her belt already. One for “Pride and Prejudice” and one just this last year as a brainy mathematician in “Imitation Game.”
Therese is such a bold choice for Knightley being as unflattering and dour a character as has ever inhabited the French stage. She’s a combustible vixen hidden in the guise of domestic 19th century mouse. She’s so dowdy in Act I, she almost seems like a servant in her own home. Which I guess is the point.
She is rushed into marriage with a man she doesn’t love Camille, played by “Matilda”s Tony Winner Gabriel Ebert. The formidable DOUBLE Tony winner Judith Light is the mother-in-law from Hell here. I wish her accent had been less distracting. She was alternatively British and Brooklyn. It was the only time I’ve ever seen Light have vocal trouble like this.
A studly family friend (Welsh actor Matt Ryan) wanders into this menage and upsets the Raquin’s household & marriage, seducing the vulnerable, but utterly willing Therese.
A scene with the stud’s artist loft afloat in the starry night sky-high above the stage as the lovers consummate their tryst is utterly magical. And for a brief moment, this 19th century drama flies, and our spirits, do, too.
Our sympathies are utterly with the two young lovers and we want them to — wait for it — murder the boring, sickly husband. Just like in “Double Indemnity”! And we want them to get away with it.
Matt Ryan’s ne’er-do-well perfectly personifies the 19th century starving artist that is going to turn Therese’s life (and the play) upside. He sizzles and sizzles burning up Therese’s home, hearth and bed and the vast Studio 54 Stage with a lust that could just turn dangerous at any moment. And it does…
I had no idea what the plot twists were going in to “Therese Raquin” and so I won’t spoil any of them here except to say that I loved all the twists and spooky turns the story takes. Two and a half hours of the darkest of French drama flew by like a whistling train. I loved it.
And I’m sure that Knightley’s stunning, almost wordless performance(in the beginning of Act One) is going to be immortalized eventually as a feature film.
But to see this courageous young actress’s wondrous Therese live in a theater is the kind of theater experience I live for.