There must be three dozen interesting and effective ways to dramatize Emile Zola’s “Therese Raquin” for the theater. To see all of them at once, refer to PTP/NYC’s exuberant, confused staging of the seminal 1867 French novel, adapted by Neal Bell. Helmer Jim Petosa has switched out some of Bell’s ideas for his own, and while the production’s numerous acting-school tricks are not always successful, they’re rarely boring. Flaky direction is given some much-needed ballast by engaging perfs, particularly Peter B. Schmitz as an elderly gendarme and Helen-Jean Arthur as the dominating matriarch.
The story tracks the decline of Therese (Lily Balsen), a young half-Algerian woman married off against her will to her sickly cousin Camille (Willie Orbison). Both husband and wife are raised in the same household by tender, ironfisted Madame Raquin (Arthur), Camille’s mother and the architect of the pairing. It’s hard to blame Therese for her discontent: together, she and her husband look like a wedding cake topper designed by Tim Burton.
Enter the dashing Laurent (Scott Janes), a bad painter and general rake who takes advantage of Therese’s loneliness simply because he can. Zola said in the preface to the novel’s second edition that he wanted to write about “human animals” (the approximate title of his most famous book, “La Bete Humaine”), and in the book, Laurent is certainly that. He sees what he wants, weighs the possible consequences and simply takes it. For her part, the languishing Therese is only too happy to be taken.
This is not quite the interaction we see on stage. There are no fewer than four stage adaptations of “Therese Raquin,” including Zola’s own massive four-act version, and there is certainly a great deal to dramatize in the novel. But Bell’s distillation is closer in tone to his own other work than to the novel’s pitiless starkness.
Here, as in the playwright’s “Spatter Pattern” and “Somewhere in the Pacific” (remounted in New York last year by this company, also under Petosa’s direction), we have people on the fringes of human experience, trying to scrape together worthwhile lives out of woefully inadequate material. When Therese and Laurent famously decide their best chance for a happy life together is to murder Camille, the impetus comes from deep within the two damanged characters, not from an animal urge.
The play is not Zola’s tapestry of see-want-take interactions; it’s an interesting perspective on the same situation, though it does wallow a bit on its way to the gruesome finale. Specifically, it wallows in sex. It’s hard to keep track of the coital and post-coital scenes lying around the play like so many used French letters, to borrow a phrase from the script. Sex on stage is always a little uncomfortable to watch — appropriately so, given the source material — but it’s also difficult to hear any of the dialogue over the visual. In a production with so many stylizations, it’s surprising these scenes aren’t a little more abstracted.
With a work that is so much about disturbed psychological states, it would have helped immeasurably if Petosa had come up with a uniform way to dramatize the characters’ shifting mindsets, just to put them on firmer ground. Instead, there are so many different aesthetics at play here that when Arthur’s character has a stroke, despite her startling acting, it takes a moment to realize she’s not just adopting another improv-y staging technique.
The best and most theatrical choice in the play (made by Bell, incidentally) is the return of Camille’s ghost, a nasty confection of rot and tatter nicely realized by costumer Nicole V. Moody. When the play becomes less of a literary curio and more of a ghost story, Petosa finds his footing. It’s up for debate whether the preceding confusion does the play irreparable violence, but the piece’s finale suggests plenty of unused potential.