Being engrossed in "Thérèse Raquin" at Studio 54 feels a lot like curling up with a juicy, 19th century romantic novel or losing oneself in a passionate period drama on BBC. In fact, Emile Zola's 1867 heavy-breathing tragedy has been told often in print, film and on TV, not to mention in two operas and, in 2001, a short-lived Broadway musical, "Thou Shalt Not," transported from France to 1940s New Orleans by Harry Connick Jr.
But the Roundabout Theatre is giving Broadway a strong, rare taste of the real thing. This is a suspenseful, beautifully staged adultery-and-murder thriller that, with the emotionally translucent Keira Knightley making her Broadway debut in the title role, left me feeling as if I had been somewhere faraway for just under three hours.
That somewhere is not, for the most part, a sunny place. Nor does the play, adapted with conversational elegance by Helen Edmundson, leave more than genuine admiration for the shivery pleasures of good storytelling. This is more than enough.
The world was not a happy place for Thérèse, raised as an orphan/servant by her aunt (gloriously played by Judith Light), then married off to her aunt's adored, physically fragile son, Camille (portrayed as a selfish eccentric but not an entirely hateful one by Gabriel Ebert).
In these early scenes, Knightley's Thérèse has the passive, chiseled face of a cameo or a woman frozen on an old coin. Just watching her watch the others is meaningful. We know the young woman's stifled longings before an erotic bolt shoots between Thérèse and her husband's friend Laurent -- played by Matt Ryan with a dashing combination of lusty conviction and self-interest.
Director Evan Cabnet, in his highest-profile assignment as a Roundabout associate artist, meticulously sculpts the many scenes into a seamless, multi-textured, closed universe that opens up when characters venture into the perilous outside world with its beckoning river. Sets, designed by Beowulf Boritt, gracefully slide in fine bourgeois furniture and slide down the windows that close off all options for these doomed, guilty people.
There are enough red herrings for a sneaky, old-time mystery, enough steamy clutches for a modern bodice-ripper and plenty of Knightley to cement her reputation here as a serious stage actress.
WHERE Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St.
INFO $47-$137; 212-719-1300; roundabouttheatre.org