Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game, the upcoming The Emperor’s Children) is making her Broadway debut in Thérèse Raquin, and not since Donna Reed donned spectacles and pulled her hair back in a tight bun as a spinster librarian in It’s A Wonderful Life has so much effort gone into draining all the sex from a sexy star. It worked: Helen Edmundson’s new adaptation of the 1867 Émile Zola novel (and, six years later, play) of illicit passion and its consequences is DOA, victim of its own literal dark-mindedness.
Most of the elements of film noir are here in spades: Thérèse is betrothed and then married to her vain, sickly cousin Camille (Gabriel Ebert, a Tony winner for Matilda), egged along by his doting mother (Emmy and Tony winner Judith Light, of Other Desert Cities and Transparent). When Camille invites new friend Laurent (Constantine‘s Matt Ryan, a Royal Shakespeare Company regular) home, sparks fly a la The Postman Always Rings Twice or Body Heat. Their molten affair prompts Camille’s murder, which according to the rules of 19th century melodrama, must lead to the end of, first, sex and then life itself. No fun!
Well, there might have been some fun if there were a smidgen of electricity between Knightley and Ryan. That would have offset the pervading gloom of Beowulf Boritt’s uncharacteristically dispiriting sets (there’s momentary comic relief when lovers and husband set out in a rowboat on an upstage river) and the fussiness of Edmundson’s script.
Underplaying the eroticism and showing the affair’s tawdry initiation (no steamy throes of passion here), I suppose the playwright means to be true to Zola. Yet that only works when the spark leads to flame. Patrons of the Roundabout will remember just such a consuming fire when Liam Neeson and the late Natasha Richardson incinerated Eugene O’Neill’s lusty but musty Anna Christie in 1993.
No such luck here. There’s a detachment between the stars I can only describe as fatal, no pun intended. The rest — the story is broken up with visits from a circle of friends who gather each week chez Raquin to play a heart-racing round of dominoes — unfolds as so much traffic in Evan Cabnet’s staging. Judith Light brings a nice pulse of sinister energy as Madame, and Ebert, who was so brilliant as the nasty Dad in Matilda, is fine as the epicene Camille. But without heat at its center — heat that inevitably must turn frozen blue — Thérèse Raquin is a sexless bore.