Murder is never easy, rarely solves anything and almost invariably comes with disastrous side effects. For Therese Raquin, the orphaned dreamer hauntingly played by Keira Knightley in an admirable Broadway debut, it is her ruin.
In Helen Edmundson's stage adaptation of Therese Raquin for the Roundabout Theatre, Zola's 19th century novel of unbridled adulterous passion and its deadly consequences becomes basically a thriller and ghost story that slowly unfolds under Evan Cabnet's studied direction in a series of scenes in which the title character undergoes a complete transformation.
Knightly seamlessly makes those transitions in a performance that is by turns touching and terrifying and that is credible throughout. After all, she is no stranger to playing obsessed women on screens large and small (Anna Karenina and Lara in Doctor Zhivago to name two) and she gives Zola's and Edmundson's tortured Therese a human dimension that becomes more complex as the story evolves.
It must be a challenge for Knightley to make herself appear plain and homely. But when we first meet her as Therese, clad in an old brown print dress that she wears throughout the first act, she is no more noticeable than the wallpaper of her widowed aunt's house in some unspecified small village on the banks of the Seine.
The center of attention in the family threesome is her cousin Camille, a spoiled brat who orders Therese around like a servant and who is pampered by his mother even as a grown man. Therese serves and waits on both her cousin and her aunt -- she even has to taste a spoonful of Camille's medicine before Madame will give it to him -- and is expected to hold her tongue. In fact, about the only time she talks is to converse with the river, to which she confides her innermost feelings and which will play a major role in future events.
Through most of the opening scenes, Knightley's Therese, looking mostly like a scared rabbit, stands silently by while Madame fusses over Camille. When Madame suggests Therese marry her cousin she wants to object but doesn't know how.
It is only on her wedding day that Therese is told the story of her own parents -- a seagoing father and an Algerian mother. When her mother died, the father left Therese with his sister, went back to sea and was never heard from again.
When Camille moves the three of them to Paris, he and his mother in time form a small social circle with some former residents from their village -- a police superintendent named Michaud, who has a young niece on the prowl for a husband, and a certain Monsieur Grivet -- with whom they play dominoes one night a week.
On one such evening Camille also brings along another village native, a young man named Laurent who has a menial job but who yearns to be an artist. When Therese and Laurent glance at each other it is lust at first sight.
A wildly passionate affair leads both Laurent and Therese to ponder how they could spend all their time together. One way, of course, would be if Camille met an untimely death. If sex is the motive, a planned Sunday outing by the river with just Camille, Therese and Laurent provides the means and opportunity. The fact that Camille continues to be a conceited jerk idolized by Madame makes the decision easier.
But Camille is not long in his grave before Therese begins to hear his voice calling out to her in the night, just as he did when he went overboard from the boat they were all three in on the Seine, along with the clanking of chains.
When the weekly domino games resume after a suitable period of mourning, it is Madame herself who suggests the now widowed Therese and Laurent should marry and they could all live happily in the apartment above the shop she keeps. The other domino players think it's a terrific idea. That it doesn't work out so well is where the murder story turns into a psychological thriller.
The Roundabout and Cabnet have put together a mostly solid cast for Edmundson's play. Matt Ryan is dashing and debonair as the irresistible Laurent and Gabriel Ebert is blithely selfish as the egotistical Camille. Judith Light is fussy as the indulgent Madame Raquin and David Patrick Kelly delivers a fine turn as Michaud.