“Thérèse Raquin” Begins Previews on Broadway

Roundabout Theatre Company Production Starring Keira Knightley

therese raquinOn October 1, 2015, Thérèse Raquin began previews at Studio 54, one of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s two Broadway venues. This is a new adaptation of the play written by Helen Edmundson, based off of Émile Zola’s 1867 novel and subsequent play of the same name. Many stage and screen adaptations have been written of this work since that time, but this new production is of an adaptation commissioned directly by Roundabout Theatre Company. Helen Edmundson has previously had one production on Broadway of a play she adapted from a book; that was the 2007 production of Coram Boy. The show is directed by Evan Cabnet, who has directed many Off Broadway shows to great acclaim and previously directed The Performers on Broadway in 2012. Thérèse Raquin deals with a young woman named Thérèse, played by Keira Knightley, who is stuck in a loveless marriage to a man named Camille Raquin, played by Gabriel Ebert who won a Tony Award for his performance in Matilda the Musical. Her mother-in-law, Madame Raquin, is played by Tony Award winner Judith Light. When she meets her husband’s childhood friend Laurent, played by Matt Ryan, a craze of passion overwhelms her.

Keira Knightley’s Broadway Debuttherese raquin

There is much anticipation for the Broadway debut of Keira Knightley, who is very well known for her screen performances in such works as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, the highly acclaimed 2007 film Atonement, and more recently the 2015 film The Imitation Game for which she also received an Academy Award nomination, but this time for Best Supporting Actress. Her recognizable screen credits are in fact too many to list, and yet she has also had her stage outings, though not on Broadway until now. In 2009, she played Jennifer in the West End production of The Misanthrope, for which she was nominated for the Olivier Award for Best Performance in a Supporting Role. In 2011, she returned to the West End to star in The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman, where she played opposite Elisabeth Moss as school mistresses falsely accused of being in a lesbian relationship in the 1930s. Thérèse Raquin is therefore her third professional stage performance on this major scale. Nevertheless, this production demonstrates Knightley’s genuine interest in classical works, not just in glitzy Hollywood roles, as she plays alongside tried and true theatre names such as Gabriel Ebert and Judith Light.

The Exploration of a Group of Caged Animals

Keira Knightley has said that this play is about a bunch of caged animals. In fact, the story of Thérèse Raquin has historically been understood in this way. In his novel, Zola refers to both Thérèse and Laurent as “human brutes,” and there are also references to the “mechanical man,” who acts in an unthinking way, even lesser than an animal but closer to a machine. Thérèse owns a shop that is compared to a tomb, and she watches corpses walk by her each day. All in all, this is a study of the temperaments of those forced to remain in captivity, and it is fascinating to see how passion springs forth so strongly after a period of repression.

Henry Winkler and Cheyenne Jackson in “The Performers” – Broadway Show Review

Henry Winkler, Alicia Silverstone, Cheyenne Jackson, Daniel Breaker, Ari Graynor and Jenni Barber in the Performers on Broadway

The Performers on Broadway – Sara Krulwich

If you anticipate that Henry Winkler’s “Fonz” from Happy Days and Alicia Silverstone’s “Cher” from Clueless will turn up onstage at the Longacre Theatre for the Broadway production of The Performers, you may be disappointed.  But who does turn up are a wonderful ensemble of actors performing a funny yet poignant romantic comedy about two couples from very different backgrounds, both with relationship problems, thrust together against the unique backdrop of the Adult Film Awards in a Las Vegas hotel.

Cheyenne Jackson plays successful porn star Mandrew, who loves his work and is hoping to win this year’s coveted adult film award for best actor. He is married to a porn actress, Peeps, played by Ari Graynor, who is a needy, simple-minded, but lovable companion in dire need of a life rudder, which Jackson provides perfectly. Alicia Silverstone plays Sara, a plain schoolteacher who has lost her passion for her fiance Lee (Daniel Breaker), the only person she has ever slept with. Added into the mix is Winkler as Chuck Wood, Mandrew’s porn star adversary (who is also up for the same award), and porn actress Sundown LeMay, played by Jenni Barber, who manages to create amusing havoc along the way.

Although Mandrew anticipates winning a number of honors at the Adult Film Awards, the gods may have other plans for him as he circumnavigates his relationship with Peeps, tries to recapture his friendship with his high school friends Sara and Lee (who happen to be in town to write a piece about him for the New York Post), and attempts to defeat the aging Chuck Wood for the most coveted award.

With David West Read’s writing and Evan Cabnet’s direction, this hilarious play takes us on a comedic trip through the trials and tribulations of an adult film couple’s relationship when it crashes into a couple at the other end of the sexual spectrum. The comedy reminds us that adult film stars are not that different from the rest of us after all, albeit with their preference for close-up bukake action face shots.

Cheyenne Jackson provides an amazing performance and captures a handsome but dimwitted Adonis working in a industry that he loves. When out of his element, Mandrew becomes confused and often draws on his only frame of reference, the porn industry, delivering hysterically funny responses with perfect timing. Jackson’s performance is an ideal balance of funny and touching. Opposite Jackson, Ari Graynor plays a very similar character to the one she recently played in her movie For a Good Time, Call…  She delivers a sound performance as Peeps in this show, but it remains to be seen if she has the acting chops for anything outside the ditzy, confused simpleton. There were signs of hope when her character began to develop beyond the two-dimensional, but it appears that Cabnet’s direction may have stopped her character development in its tracks.

Silverstone’s whiny Clueless line delivery does creep into a few scenes as she fleshes out the plain, sexually bored teacher opposite Daniel Breaker’s Lee.  The infamous Howard Stern has often been quoted as saying that, “Actors who can only shine as retarded or drunk characters aren’t often strong enough actors to capture the nuances of real, more subtle, less caricature characters.”  This may be true of Silverstone’s performance. The only time in this show where Silverstone really only comes into her own is when she is playing the falling down drunk version of Sara and yells at Chuck Wood to “Get me a coffee, bitch!”

Daniel Breaker does, however, shine as the hapless reporter trying to keep his marriage together during a difficult, often turbulent time. His portrayal of Lee is developed perfectly as his character becomes better educated in the world of sex, something that Lee is clearly unfamiliar with and demonstrates to great comedic effect.

It appears that playwright David West Read hasn’t seen too many porn movies, nor actually met any porn actors, because his caricature of the talent is so far off the mark. With an “everyone in the industry is a moron” approach, it’s more pandering than a gross mis-characterization, but often straying into extreme stereotypes that don’t add any funny to the scenes and with so many missed opportunities. The show’s dialogue may give some insight into Read’s exposure to porn when Sara indicates that she knows about the porn industry from reading a paper during her work on her master’s degree. Methinks that David West Read is referring to himself.

Jenni Barber’s stage talent is virtually untapped in this show, with her portrayal of a one-dimensional dumb blonde porn actress, the epitome of the Hollywood bimbo. One key final scene with Winkler is squandered to tepid sexual humor, when Read could have written just one line, just one line in the whole show, that would have established that, maybe, Sundown LeMay was the genius and we were the bimbos.

The small disappointment in The Performers is Winkler as Chuck Wood. It appears that Winkler, a veritable national treasure, can only play two characters: The Fonz and Henry Winkler. It is Henry Winkler who shows up for this show, and although it is a great honor to be in his presence, he fails to bring any depth to Chuck Wood, an over-the-hill porn star who knows that his career is over and his demise is near, but cannot quite quit before he crashes into the wall, because porn is all he has. Winkler has some great opportunities with his scenes and delivers on a key monologue that contains heart and humor, but his performance overall ultimately falls flat as does his interaction with the other actors.

The Performers is a funny romantic comedy farce, with lots of heart, but ultimately a little disappointing. We anticipate it may go straight-to-video — right after the money shot.