Dark Drama, Silly, Sweet Send-Up, and a Real Dog

Thérèse Raquin Studio 54

Gabriel Ebert, Matt Ryan, and Keira Knightley in Helen Edmundson’s stage adaptation of Zola’s “Thérèse Raquin,” directed by Evan Cabnet. | JOAN MARCUS

Zola’s “Thérèse Raquin” was a very dark novel, and in the new adaptation by Helen Edmundson now at Studio 54, it is a very dark play. That is not to say it’s not wonderful because it is. Zola pioneered a new literary style that he dubbed “naturalism,” but it is not the naturalism of 20th century acting that seeks to be as close to real life as possible. Rather, Zola’s naturalism sought to examine the effects of nature — birth, heredity, and the social position it affords — on humans. In the introduction to his novel, Zola writes he was concerned with “temperaments,” how they were formed, and the consequences that arose because of them. What on the surface looks like a moralistic warning against infidelity is much more complex. When Thérèse discovers her passionate temperament and chooses to follow it, tragedy ensues. Zola doesn’t judge, he observes, and in his naturalism tries to bring what he called the “scientific method” to his examination of human behavior.

Edmundson’s adaptation is structured cinematically as a series of short scenes. In lesser hands, this kind of fragmentation is often clumsy, but she manages it well, writing fully and developing the characters slowly and with detail. After a lengthy but engaging exposition, the structure works for the piece, creating edge-of-your-seat suspense. Moreover, Edmundson has beautifully captured the spirit of the book in all its mid-19th century melodrama and grand guignol.

Thérèse has been more or less forced to marry her cousin Camille by his mother, who also raised the orphaned girl. Camille is self-absorbed, sickly, and passionless, but Thérèse thinks he’s the best she can do to be secure. When the three of them move to Paris from their small village, however, she meets Laurent, who awakens her dormant sexuality, and they begin a torrid affair right under the eyes of Camille and his mother. Together Thérèse and Laurent plan to get Camille out of the way, which they accomplish on a boating expedition, as Camille can’t swim. You can pretty much guess what happens. As you may also guess, the lovers do not live happily ever after.

Thérèse Raquin” engrosses, “Dames at Sea” delights, Annaleigh Ashford is the only reward in “Sylvia”

As fiercely directed by Evan Cabnet, the production is the theatrical equivalent of a page-turner. The magnificent set design by Beowulf Boritt is sometimes breathtakingly beautiful even at its most simplistic. The muted palette is echoed by Jane Greenwood in her fine costumes and in Keith Parham’s exceptional lighting. The overall effect beautifully sets up the conflict between Therese’s nature, which frees her, and her physical confinement. The apartment in Paris, right above the shop that Thérèse opens with her mother-in-law, is coffin-like. With the passions of Thérèse and Laurent bottled up this way, combustion is inevitable.

The four principals in the cast are consistently remarkable. Judith Light turns in a complex performance as Madame Raquin. Gabriel Ebert is compelling as Camille, self-involved but also cruel, giving a performance that is richly detailed despite the character’s superficial nature. Matt Ryan plays Laurent as a charming schemer who ultimately has to confront what he has done.

The production, however, belongs to Keira Knightley, making her Broadway debut. For much of the first part of the play she says nothing, but she fills every moment. She is so completely present, focused, and committed to what she is doing that her Thérèse is appealing, appalling, and heartbreaking all at once. Knightley is simply spellbinding, as is this entire production.

Eloise Kropp and Cary Tedder in Randy Skinner’s revival of “Dames at Sea.” | JEREMY DANIEL

Eloise Kropp and Cary Tedder in Randy Skinner’s revival of “Dames at Sea.” | JEREMY DANIEL

I’m not sure that anyone under 50 will get all the winking references to old movies in the musical “Dames at Sea,” but that hardly matters. This energetic revival is brightening up the Helen Hayes Theatre with charm and energy measured in megawatts. First seen Off-Broadway in 1968 in the production that launched Bernadette Peters’ career, the show is a send-up of all the musical comedy tropes of the 1930s with a score that’s adorable pastiche.

“Dames” is a backstage musical where a little girl from a small town arrives in New York and ends up a star on Broadway and engaged to handsome sailor… all in one day. The book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller and the music by Jim Wise manage to be both ironic and sweet.

The cast is terrific. Lesli Margherita is Mona Kent, the diva who gets seasick and can’t go on. John Bolton in two roles is hilariously over-the-top. Eloise Kropp as Ruby, the small town girl who steps into stardom, looks like she just stepped out of a 1930s film and is just swell, as they might have said then. Mara Davi as Joan is the brassy girl. As the two sailors, Cary Tedder as Dick is bright and funny, while Danny Gardner, who has been so great in the clowning shows staged by Parallel Exit, here takes on the singing, dancing sidekick role with real charisma.

Director and choreographer Randy Skinner has staged the show with a real sense of the period but added some contemporary physicality that makes all the dancing –– but especially the tap –– some of the best we’ve seen in a while. Skinner has a real sense of the period he’s lovingly lampooning, and his crew executes it perfectly. I admit, I really love the movies this show pokes fun at, but even if you don’t, this is a wonderfully fun evening of singing and silliness.

Annaleigh Ashford in A.R. Gurney's "Sylvia." | JOAN MARCUS

Annaleigh Ashford in A.R. Gurney's “Sylvia.” | JOAN MARCUS

It’s clear that A. R. Gurney’s “Sylvia” is nothing more than one of those anthropomorphic New Yorker dog cartoons spun out into a play. As one panel on the page, these can be mildly humorous. As a full length play, it is tooth-grindingly tedious. The play imagines what would happen if we could hear a dog’s thoughts. Middle-aged Greg finds a dog –– identified only as Sylvia on her tag –– in the park and brings her home, much to the chagrin of his wife, Kate. We hear the dog’s thoughts, and a battle begins for Greg’s affections between dog and wife. Have you nodded off yet? It gets worse, largely because it just rambles on with tired jokes.

At it’s heart, “Sylvia” is really the story of a selfish, mean man happy to torment his wife and risk his marriage to salve his own ego. Gurney doesn’t even have the courage to follow this through in any honest way. Instead, everything’s tied up at the end with some sentimental claptrap about coming to love the dog and everyone learning to get along. It is as forced as it is false.

Julie White plays Kate, and she is, as always, wonderful. Robert Sella plays several roles — another guy in the park, a female friend of Kate’s, and a therapist of unknown gender. All three characters are obvious caricatures, and Sella doesn’t act so much as toss off mannerisms. Matthew Broderick plays Greg with what has now become the robotic physicality and affectless whine he brings to every part. At times, he is almost unwatchable.

The bright spot in all of this is Annaleigh Ashford as Sylvia. Easily one of the most accomplished physical comedians around, Ashford is is a consistent delight to watch. Then again, when surrounded by insufferable adults, a dog with a great personality will always get the attention and brighten the mood.

THÉRÈSE RAQUIN | Roundabout at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St. | Through Jan. 3: Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $47-$137 at roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300 | Two hrs., 30 mins., with intermission

DAMES AT SEA | The Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St. | Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $67.50-$154.50 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 10 mins., with intermission

SYLVIA | Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St. | Through Jan. 24: Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $37-$147 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | 90 mins., no intermission