First Nighter: Keira Knightley as Emile Zola's 'Therese Raquin,' Chekhov's 'Seagull' Countrified as 'Songbird,' 'Catch the Butcher' Not a Great Catch

Apparently, director Evan Cabnet believes the difference between comedy and tragedy is that the former is played fast and the latter is played slowly--and not just slowly-slowly but at the sluggish pace of a snail crossing the pavement on a hot summer's day.

At least, that's how he unfolds Helen Edmundson's adaptation of Emile Zola's irresistible 1867 novel, Therese Raquin, now at Roundabout's Studio 54 and serving as Keira Knightley's Broadway debut.

Cabnet establishes his depressed velocity from the first, when Knightley, wearing the not-overly-becoming brownish period housedress that Jane Greenwood has astutely found for her, walks onto Beowulf Boritt's stunningly stylish brown-and grey set and then stands still for the audience to register her as someone unremittingly somber.

Not incidentally, for the rest of the play no one walks any faster than Knightley just has. Even the set pieces--representing large windows and then a heavy-walled Paris home and regularly lowered from the vast and high Studio 54 fly and then regularly raised--move at the now familiar snail's rate.

It may be that some--maybe even many--spectators will be mesmerized by a production that has the effect of observing a watch on a gold fob swung back and forth before one's eyes. Many others may not be. They could start thinking that were they reading the Zola page-turner, they'd be turning faster than Cabnet is goosing the stage action.

And Zola's is a whale of a tale. Therese (Knightley) has been raised by her aunt, Madame Raquin (Judith Light), with her cousin Camille (Gabriel Ebert), and it's been Aunt's abiding hope that one day the youngsters wed. The catch is that Camille (here consistently pronounced as "Cammy" rather than as something more subtly, accent-on-both-syllables French-sounding) is a martinet for whom the generally silent Therese has harbored a strong dislike, not to say hatred.

Beholden to her aunt's goodness, however, Therese marries cousin Camille and is prepared to suffer conjugal life, if not consummation. That's until Camille brings home pal Laurent (Matt Ryan) for Madame Raquin's Thursday night dominoes game with locals Monsieur Grivet (Jeff Still), Superintendent Michaud (David Patrick Kelly) and his marriage-age niece Suzanne (Mary Wiseman).

Therese and Laurent have barely clapped eyes on each other than they're sold on and ravishing each other whenever they can steal the opportunity--well, she more quickly than he initially. The occasional hay-roll, hot as it might be, isn't sufficient, and soon Therese and Laurent are plotting Camille's demise in a seeming accident, during which Cabnet does speed up what goes on in a boat floating on an upstage waterway.

That's the first act of the stretched-out production. The second act is concerned with the debilitating guilt the murdering lovers experience--Therese more acutely than Laurent--and that guilt's destroying any romantic feelings they've had for each other. Compounding their plight is Madame Raquin's overhearing their verbal assaults and having a stroke that leaves her unable to speak her condemnation other than with her eyes.

Oh, yes, it's an almost Macbeth-like situation that should grab viewers, as it has readers, were Cabnet not protracting it. It's a pulls-no-punches story in a treatment that has those punches thrown and land in slow motion.

Within those limits the company does well. Big-screen actor Knightley is required to convey her dissatisfaction silently throughout the earlier sequences and does it more than effectively. When she finds her tongue with Laurent, she displays plenty of sexual allure.

(Though this is Knightley's New York City bow, she curiously doesn't mention in her bio that she's done two plays in London's West End. She's been impressive in both--as a dizzy movie star in Martin Crimp's modern take on Moliere's The Misanthrope and as one of the lesbian lovers in Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour. I know, because I saw both productions.)

Judith Light is as good as she always is in a part different from anything she's done before. Unfortunately, because she's usually placed sideways in her post-stroke wheelchair, the condemning stares she's supposedly giving Therese and Laurent are downplayed. (In Therese Raquin films, close-ups impossible on the stage always get that terrifying point across.)

From the minute Ebert opens his mouth, he turns Camille into a man you love to hate. Ryan is as hot as Laurent must be and in the later scenes turns smolderingly mean just as handily. Kelly, Still and Wiseman also perk up their scenes--Wiseman doing especially well as a nice girl who thinks she's also found love but hasn't.

Everyone connected with Therese Raquin seems to know what a powerhouse it is as a portrait of 19th-century middle-class French malaise. It's a shame that Cabnet hasn't quite propelled that past the footlights.
***************
If your heart, unlike mine, leaps up at the prospect of The Seagull retooled as a Grand Ole Opry-style musical set in a Tennessee bar, then Songbird is for you. That's the Anton Chekhov play about an acclaimed actress on the decline who neglects her depressed son and who also finds herself in competition with a young girl for her lover's attention.

It turns out that much of it--with its reworked dialogue by Michael Kimmel and songs by Lauren Pritchard--was for me, too. That's because Chekhov's characters and the emotions they unleash are universal. No matter what the setting into which they're plopped, they retain the Russian playwright's dramedy impact.

Of course, that's if they're well played, which, it's a pleasure to say, they are as directed by JV Mercanti on Jason Sherwood's inviting clapboard set and as led by Kate Baldwin as Tammy Trip(!), standing in for Arkadina, Eric William Morris, standing in for Trigorin, Adam Corcoran as Dean, standing in for Konstantin, Ephie Aardema as Mia, standing in for Nina and Kacie Sheik as Missy, standing in for Masha.

Erin Dilly, Bob Stillman, Andy Taylor, Don Guillory and Drew McVety are the others playing figures that may or not be lifted from The Seagull. They all sing lustily--Sheik, in particular, showing off a distinctive style. Just say that this Missy/Masha isn't so much in mourning for her life as in moaning low for it.

The songs they get to sing are another thing entirely. Oddly enough, early in the script someone spouts a remark about a country tunesmith who comes up with "the same old stuff." Though Pritchard's numbers have a certain power as they're performed, too much of the score could be similarly described as "the same old stuff."

Maybe the best thing that can be said about them is that they're played by the instrumentalists in the cast and that, as in the Grand Ole Opry tradition, often almost everybody is backing up whoever has the lead vocal. That's the spirit.
***************
Adam Seidel's Catch the Butcher, at Cherry Lane Studio, is about as foolishly credulity-stretching an enterprise as you might want--or not want--to witness. Indeed, there are so many holes in the plot that if you put it between two slices of bread, you'd have a nice Swiss cheese sandwich.

Nancy (Lauren Luna Velez) is discovered on a park bench making eyes at William, or Bill (Jonathan Walker), whom she suspects is the serial killer--11 women so far--she hopes will turn her into his 12th victim. (I said this is an unbelievable premise.) Sure enough, the third time he cases her joints, this time masked, he chloroforms her and drags her away. In full daylight, don't you know?

Once he's got her in his sound-proofed basement and is about to wipe her out, she starts asking questions that slowly disarm him enough to remove all restraints, invite her upstairs and, before too much more hard-to-credit time goes by, set up light housekeeping with her.

Things get all domestic until Nancy meets loquacious neighbor Joanne (Angelina Fiordellisi), arranges a dinner date for her and husband Roy. Then a few things go awry and Seidel moves on to his happy(?) ending.

For the record, Valentina Fratti directed the cast of three, all of whom doing more than might be hoped for with the material. The set is by Lauren Helpern, the costumes (Nancy does become quite stylish) by Brooke M. Cohen, the lighting by Graham Kindred and the sound by Quentin Chiappetta, who plays Gene Watson's "Ain't No Fun to Be Alone in San Antone" to establish the isolated Texas feeling so important to Catch the Butcher.