The whites, greys and blacks of the Roundabout’s THÉRÈSE RAQUIN are so muted that, when a brown-hued backdrop appears, it is like a flash of color, and so, later on, is a sparse scattering of autumn leaves, dropped and faded. The interiors, when they appear, are dim and woody, the windows opening, at best, on grey days or streets that shut out the sun. They are of a piece – Beowulf Boritt’s set and Jane Greenwood’s costumes – with the beautifully preserved theatrical architecture of Studio 54, memory dimmed, onstage and off, but with a sheen, time’s passage varnished, both painterly and contemplative. And there is much, in this version of Zola’s naturalistic novel, to contemplate.

There is, to start with, Keira Knightley as Thérèse, her iconic jawline sharp as the edge of a Halloween mask, with eyes through which something sharp and accusatory comes in spite – indeed with the added impact – of their unplumbable depths. Thérèse is, in 19th century parlance, “nervous,” but Knightley approaches her tragedy, a love triangle that leads to murder, with a modern, and distinctly feminist, understanding: it is as much the result of patriarchal power, ironically channeled through a woman, her aunt and guardian Madame Raquin, as of a physiological imbalance. Knightley gets that about Thérèse, and that she does so is, I think, the best thing, along with Borritt and Greenwood’s exquisite designs, about Evan Cabnet’s production.

There is, also, the play itself. What we see bears the title of the one Émile Zola wrote in 1873 in an attempt to theatricalize the Naturalist values of his novel of the same name. It isn’t, however, that play, but one by Helen Edmundson, the latest in a string of dramatizations, for stage and screen, that have displaced Zola’s own. There are reasons why his isn’t, or is only rarely, performed. He was a great polemical journalist and intellectual figure, and a key theorist of Naturalism in the theater, calling for an aesthetic of contemporary realism, in which scientific observation, accurate reproduction and ordinary speech would replace moralism, scenic artifice and poetical language. His novel is an absorbing read, an amalgam of 19th-century pseudoscience (the doctrine of the temperaments in human behavior) with the conventions of psychological horror to which Poe, on the other side of Atlantic (also a devotee of the temperaments: “True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am …”), had pointed the way. The play, on the other hand, feels contrived and melodramatic, partly because it fell prey to a lot of false, or soon dated, assumptions about what the theater can and can’t do. That you can’t show a scene on a small boat on a body of water and still be realistic. That thoughts and feelings described but not spoken in a novel must, in a play, be said aloud. That in a book there can be a cat but in the theater there can’t be.

On the last point Zola was at least close (never say never) to being right. Beware, as the saw has it, to share a stage with a child or an animal. But technology has made water scenes perfectly viable and leaving things unsaid – subtext – is the basis of modern naturalistic acting. Add to that a subtler understanding of the relationship between theatrical illusion and the “real” or “natural” than was possible in Zola’s time (when ditching artifice was  necessary to move the theater forward) and the impulse to do Zola one better is understandable. The original Thérèse is in the odd position of being a seminal work of 19th century Naturalism, which by rights should stand beside the works of Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov, yet isn’t, or so it seems, up to the task. Thérèse ought to be Nora or Miss Julie or Nina, but she’s held back by the dramaturgy, an archetype injustly shackled.

I’m not sure about that. It isn’t just the dramatic writing that is creaky: it’s all the stuff about temperament and genetic (including racial) predisposition that Zola thought was scientific but that hasn’t, to put in mildly, held up. And, in fact, Knightley’s sensitivity to a more credible psychology, along with Edmundson’s insertion of the notion of “hysteria” – a gendered stereotype – into the mouth of a male character, acknowledges the difficulty and puts it in a critical light (although doing so stands out enough to undermine , somewhat, the veracity of the dialogue). And, yes, Thérèse is archetypal, but as a figure in a story type, of a love forbidden and the lovers doomed, that extends backward to Romeo and Juliet and Tristan and Isolde and forward to the pulp fiction and film noir of James M. Cain, in which ordinary men are lead by femmes fatales to murder their husbands, only to be wracked by guilt and the fear of exposure. (Marcel Carné’s 1953 film Thérèse Raquin, or The Adultress, is explicitly film noir, while In Secret, a 2013 release with Elizabeth Olsen as Thérèse, is redolent of the Tristan myth.)

Roundabout’s version aspires to archetype, or something like it, but goes in neither of those directions. The design combines period realism and geometric abstraction, hinting at trans-historical meaning, but the direction doesn’t bring it into focus. Something in the vocal style contributes to this: the actors seem, as a whole, neither French nor archetypally “neutral.” Of the four main players, Knightley and Matt Ryan, as Thérèse’s lover Laurent, are English, while Gabriel Ebert, as her dislikable husband Camille, and Judith Light, as the imperious Madame Raquin, are American. Knightley softens her accent considerably in the direction of neutrality, while Light’s acquires just a hint, perhaps for consistency’s sake with Knightley, of Englishness. Ryan, however, remains completely of his own country and Ebert, for inexplicable reasons, matches him almost to the level of a British caricature. The atmosphere is so Gallic, on the one hand, and straining at universality on the other, as to make this a genuine, and pervasive, problem, not so much as a matter of realism, which doesn’t seem to be Cabnet’s intent, but of conceptual coherence. David Patrick Kelly deserves, in this context, a hat tip for cutting a splendidly French figure as the family friend Superintendent Michaud, like a period engraving come to life.

Edmundson’s adaptation, for its part, may or may not be an improvement on Zola’s play (the existence of which isn’t noted in the program). It goes outdoors, as Zola’s doesn’t, allowing for some beautiful staging, including of the pivotal event on the water (the control booth, however, is in a hurry to go to blackout when Knightley and Ryan drag themselves dripping wet to safety, rather than giving us, and them, a moment with the aftermath of their deed). The action is, as a whole, well and clearly drawn, if a little rushed at the end, and the persons of the novel are decently converted into those of the drama. Edmundson falls, though, into the trap that Zola did, when it comes to subtext, dramatizing the guilty imaginings of Thérèse rather than trusting in the power of her reaction to what she sees, or hears, but that we oughtn’t be able to. Knightley doesn’t need special effects to pull it off. She is, truth to tell, memorably good, and for all the lack of clarity that surrounds her, is worth a visit to Studio 54 to see.

THÉRÈSE RAQUIN continues through January 3 at Studio 54. For information on this and other Roundabout Theatre Company productions, click here.

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