Perhaps if Thérèse Raquin had thrown her net wider than her aunt's home in a small village along the Seine of 1868 where she was plodded to play maid and nurse to her first cousin, she might have pulled in a more substantial marriage mate than she did. Unfortunately, this Camille is more of a rough scuffling-partner than husband — and an obnoxious, mother-smothered weakling on top of that, certainly no match for the first studly presence to cross her path (a fair-to-middling portrait painter named Laurent, who lets sexual obsession lead him into very dark and deadly waters).
Of course, had Emile Zola allowed her to do the above, he wouldn't have had one of his most celebrated novels, and we wouldn't have Keira Knightley making her Broadway bow Oct. 29 at Roundabout's Studio 54 as the luckless Thérèse Raquin.
Thérèse Raquin, Starring Keira Knightley and Judith Light, Opens on Broadway; Red Carpet Arrivals, Curtain Call and After Party!
This is a thrice-told tale for Broadway, and that doesn't count Zola's own fumbled attempt to turn his melodrama-heavy plot into presentable theatre. Thérèse first surfaced 70 years ago this month as a vehicle for Eva Le Gallienne, with Victor Jory, Dame May Whitty and Berry Kroeger prominent in support. The 2001 musical version from Harry Connick, Jr. and Susan Stroman eked out 85 performances; it was called Thou Shalt Not (short for Thou Shalt Not Make a Musical of Thérèse Raquin). Thou shall not make a comedy of it, either, so Coram Boy playwright Helen Edmundson was understandably dismayed that her adaptation was, despite earnest acting from all hands, drawing unwanted laughter as the plot grew grimmer.
For her, the play was intended as a labor of love, one that begin when she read the book as a teenager, and that love was rekindled by the BBC miniseries in the 1980s.
"The laughter gave me anxiety, especially in the first act," she admitted, "but by the second, I think the audience was getting with it. The story is so unrelenting that I think they actively seek some kind of relief, some kind of break from the tension."
Evan Cabnet, who directed the play, conceded that it was a wild beast to control in terms of extreme mood-swings. "The play operates on a lot of different levels," he pointed out. "What we were really trying to do was to honor the story with enough clarity and lack of editorializing that an audience can take a lot of different things from it. They are free to laugh one moment because they actually think it's funny or because it's nervous laughter — and be horrified the next moment. Audiences want to laugh, particularly when the material is that dark and intense. I think they need to, so we're always quite happy to indulge that, especially if the laughs are on our terms."
Lightening his load was the job of steering the film star through her first Broadway effort. "Keira is remarkable, easily the hardest-working, most fearless and dedicated actress I've ever worked with. She really set the tone for the entire production and was so humble that any reminder she's a film star of her caliber quickly disappears."
When she met the press after the play in the long, ornate, mirrored lobby of Studio 54, she confessed to feeling marginally different. "I've had a glass and a half of champagne and a whole show — so, yeah, I feel a bit sweatier," she allowed. "We've done over 30 shows of this now, so to actually be open, officially, is really lovely."
She had two London stage notches on her belt before taking on the notorious vagaries of Broadway: a 2009 bow in The Misanthrope that nabbed her nominations for an Olivier and an Evening Standard Award, and a 2011 revival of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour with Elisabeth Moss, Ellen Burstyn and Carol Kane.
What's new to her is New York audiences — especially being confronted her first few moments onstage here by a flower-flinging fan who shouted at her from the audience until he was finally led away in handcuffs. Lest he return, bodyguards accompany her everywhere and escorted her to the after-party at The Liberty Diner.
"Live theatre is live theatre," she reasoned. "You never know what you're going to get. Every audience is different, and the show changes according to what the audience brings with them. As far as the cast is concerned, we all know Broadway tickets are very expensive, so the most important thing for us is that people haven't wasted their money, that we're professional at all times and give them a good show.
"Sometimes when things happen, you literally can't carry on, which happened at the first preview, so we started over. Some people will like it, and some won't — that's the nature of the beast — but, as long as we know we've done our best, we're okay."
"With Thérèse Raquin, I was really interested in working physically," she shared. "Being predominantly a film actress, I don't work on the physical side as much, so in the four years since The Children's Hour I was interested in how to work with the whole body as opposed to just the face. I think that's a lot freer than it has been. Something we talked a lot about was Thérèse's physicality and how to use that. I'm not really trained so I'm having to really learn as I go along. That's been interesting to explore because Thérèse is very physical, and a lot of her problems are very physical."
Knightley should have been careful what she wishes for. On opening night, she was sporting a sprained wrist from a tussle with Gabriel Ebert during a scene. "I forgot onstage that I was acting. My character's meant to be stronger than Gabe's character, so I launched myself at him, which is not a bright thing to do when you are five-foot-seven and he's six-foot-four. A sprain takes ages, and I've a six-month-old baby I'm lifting up all the time, which means it isn't quite resting as it should."
Matt Ryan, who has some pretty brutish onstage sex with Knightley as her lover, Laurent, has been gingerly gruff since her mishap. "There is that concern there may be an injury, and it is a play where things can happen in the spur of the moment — and so they should — but I think we were all so attuned that everyone looks after each other really well physically, even though it unfortunately looks dangerous."
A couple of theatre reporters had fun razzing Ebert. One asked if the blonde he was hanging out with at the party was a co-star in the show he did in drag, Casa Valentina. "That's my mom!" he snapped back, rising to the bait. Another asked if Thérèse Raquin was his Broadway debut. "No. I'm a Tony Award winner, man," he said, rising again. He got it playing the ultimate in Bad Dads in Matilda the Musical.
Thérèse's hubby, Camille, proves every bit as grating and disagreeable as Matilda's pop. Is that what he looks for in a role? "Every play is different," he said. "I have to figure out how to do a play all over again each time. For a while, I was leaning into the likable aspects of him — the things that were enjoyable and amusing — but it's been a really good lesson for me because the more truthfully I play him, the more ugly and despicable he actually is. The play thrives when I play my character honestly."
Camille, alas, doesn't live to see the second act, and that leaves Ebert with lots of time on his hands. "I do all the off-stage hauntings myself — the scratching on the walls — I shout her name. That's me. We're now in the World Series, so occasionally I check the score because I'm a big baseball nerd. I play my ukulele, and I hang out with the cast. It's a great group of people backstage. I'm happy to be there."
Judith Light, who plays Camille's doting mother, was feeling extra exhausted after the opening-night performance — and with cause. Because the Hollywood Foreign Press Association had passed out Golden Globes to her online show, "Transparent," last year (for best series and to Jeffrey Tambor for best actor), she was obliged to make a quickie one-day trip to L.A. earlier in the week for one of their events.
The red-eye trek didn't affect her sharp attack on the character, however. "You have to attack it — otherwise, there's nowhere to go," the actress explained. "I got so much help on her from Jane Greenwood, who did the costumes, and Tom Watson, who did the wig. There were a lot of people who went into the making of this character."
The always reliable David Patrick Kelly (once of Once and Is There Life After High School?) contributes another of his colorfully crusty characters to the proceedings. Clearly, he was reveling in the setting. "I love Zola. I love being in his world. He's part of Cezanne and Matisse and Monet and all those folks, and he was telling the truth about what they were going through and writing stuff that sorta predates Freud and post-traumatic stress. It's really tremendous to be a part of that whole world."
It must be added that Thérèse Raquin has been splashed high, wide and handsome against a spectacular Beowulf Boritt set — and a river runs through it. "Actually, it is about three feet in the middle and gets shallower on the sides," Boritt qualified.
"I discussed it with the director, and in our first meeting about a year ago, I showed him a book of paintings by a 19th century Danish painter named Hammershoi. There were a lot of bleak paintings of a girl staring out a window looking lonely, and that was our basis. But early on — because the centerpiece of the play is this guy drowning — we started talking about using real water, and the whole set kinda took off from there. It looks a lot deeper than it is, but that's just acting and the lighting."