by Émile Zola
Adapted by Helen Edmundson
Directed by Evan Cabnet
Starring Kiera Knightley,
Gabriel Ebert, Matt Ryan
and Judith Light
Roundabout Theatre Company
at Studio 54

by Stephen Karam
Directed by Joe Mantello
Roundabout Theatre Company
at the Laura Pels Theatre

Created by Gob Squad
Public Theater

Reviewed by David Spencer

At Studio 54 via the Roundabout Theatre Company, Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Émile Zola’s novel of lust, murder and guilt, Thérèse Raquin is a very decent, if unexceptional, little potboiler. 1868, Paris: betrothed by prior arrangement to a cousin, the orphaned Thérèse (Kiera Knightly) dreads the union; Camille (Gabriel Ebert) is petty, sexless and crude, qualities to which of course his mother (Judith Light) is blind. A visit from one of his friends, the sexually charged Laurent (Matt Ryan) changes everything. Thérèse and Larent quickly begin a torrid affair and in time plot to murder Camille.

                  Under the direction of Evan Cabnet, the evening plays with what struck me as a kind of black-and-white cinema cool (in particular because the proscenium is framed most of the time, promoting an almost documentary claustrophobia, and reminded me of nothing so much as an old Twilight Zone episode, in particular the ones where we watch morally compromised souls fight a losing battle with fate and consequence. I wouldn’t call this one a must-see, but there’s no shame in it being a might-see. Naturally the most compelling performance is given by Gabriel Ebert as the boorish victim, as it would have to be, in order to inspire enough antipathy to motivate killing him.

                  I wish I had a strong opinion one way or another about The Humans (also via the Roundabout, at the Laura Pels) by Stephen Karam, but it too strikes me only as a might-see, and only mildly. I don’t think this has anything to do with its innate worthiness—toward which I have no qualms—nor its fine cast and equally fine director (Joe Mantello); it’s more to do with the play not speaking to me on a primary enough level. It reminded me of nothing so much as learning, in drama history, about the influence of early 20th century German theatre, and the first experimental forays into theatrical representation of real life. Since that’s hardly anymore news as an approach unto itself, of course, I wasn’t sure of why—in the philosophical sense—I was at the theatre. But I’ll give The Humans that it’s a noble exercise in form and sustained my interest for seemingly having fulfilled its own goal at a high standard of craft. Which is high praise of a sort.

                  The play is about the gathering of a middle class family for Thanksgiving dinner in Astoria, representing three generations, different points of view, different phases of life. Taking it on the terms I did appreciate, it’s an awfully well-delivered, well-constructed, well-dialogued example of slice-of-life realism, and well-attuned to the current zeitgeist; even in argument, these people try to acknowledge the wider perspective that (hopefully) comes with the psychological awareness of the times. Not that it makes their difficulties any less difficult, but dramatizing potentially volatile family tension without melodrama, such that tolerance and forgiveness are still agents of release—for a time—is no easy achievement. And all hands have done at least that.

                    Before Your Very Eyes, created by Gob Squad, at the Public, put me in mind of one of the short films that Albert Brooks made for the very first season of “Saturday Night Live”. This one was a satire of SNL network NBC's new season promos (really a satire of network television—as it was then—in general) and after a series of "clips" from parody TV shows, there came the promos for great new specials, among them, trumpeted the announcer, "Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, performed entirely by children!" Cut to a shot of a pre-pubescent boy in a too big hat and too-large overcoat, with heavily articulated age lines drawn around his mouth and eyes, weightily intoning Willy Loman's opening lines.

                  This memory became sharp and unbidden because after a fashion, Before Your Very Eyes has that kind of thing on offer for real, and dished up, not without humor, but also not without sincerity.

                  We are shown a group of grade-and-middle school children (one of two alternating casts) through a one way mirror, the proscenium flanked on either side by stage-floor-to-flyspace TV screens for various aiding and abetting effects I won't get into here. We see them playing and "just being kids" for a while, with all the promise of youth and possibility before them, until a control voice stops them and starts directing them to jump into their next phase of life, which they do by applying makeup and costumes; and then answering control voice questions about where life has taken them. With each new phase of life, as this pattern progresses, they are shown to have made progressively more limited choices and to have become less individualistically idealistic and more fatalistically generic. This happens with many long pauses, the scripted lines evoking Samuel Beckett, albeit without so much wit.

                  The show is 70 minutes long, but its por- and pre- tentiousness make it seem damn near endless; and I have to say, having children  enact existential angst, simply for the novelty of the exercise, strikes me as vaguely distasteful.

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