You can imagine directors being warned away from adapting the work of Philip Roth. The film versions of his novels have been panned so consistently that a writer for The Atlantic in 2014 called for them to stop. Few playhouses have even attempted to translate them for the stage.
Yet a young French theater director, Tiphaine Raffier, just proved that it can be done. On Friday — the ongoing strikes over France’s pension changes delayed the opening by a day — she unveiled an absorbing, ingenious adaptation of Roth’s final book, “Nemesis,” on the second stage of Paris’s Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe. All it took was two hours and 45 minutes, without an intermission; a cast of nearly 30, including eight children and five musicians; and the refashioning of an entire portion of the plot into a musical, complete with original songs.
And that’s for one of Roth’s most concise novels. Set in 1944, “Nemesis” is centered on Bucky, a summertime playground director from Newark, N.J., who is caught in the middle of a polio epidemic in his Jewish neighborhood. The children he works with start dying, at a terrifying pace. After he escapes to Indian Hill, an idyllic summer camp in the Poconos, the disease catches up with his charges there, too.
Raffier states in the playbill that the novel’s subject matter struck her in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, but she steers clear of too-obvious parallels. What she evokes instead in compelling fashion is the moral complexity of “Nemesis,” especially the characters’ desperate need for an explanation of the unexplainable — a virus that appears to strike at random, because the means of transmission were still something of a mystery.
It’s familiar terrain for Raffier, who created her company in 2015. Two years ago, she wrote and directed “La Réponse des Hommes” (“The Human Response”), a freewheeling, overlong play inspired by the Christian works of mercy, from feeding the hungry to caring for the sick, that explored the thorny notion of “doing good.” In “Nemesis,” however, her penchant for long-form theater — Raffier, a trained actor, has also been seen in the marathon productions of the French director Julien Gosselin — is balanced with greater control and urgency.
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In her hands, the three parts of the novel strike starkly different tones. The first takes place on a shadowy stage, lit through shutters on all three sides. Conversations are in turns hushed and high-pitched, in tune with the characters’ paranoia as polio spreads from child to child. Could the virus have come from the wind? Hot dogs? A group of Italians, or a disabled local man named Horace, whom teenagers attempt to wash with ammonia?
Raffier highlights the contrasts between the suffocating Newark neighborhood — at “war” with polio, as Roth describes it — and Indian Hill. The sets change to reveal glorious, panoramic mountain views, printed on a semicircular curtain. Immaculately dressed children from the Conservatory of Saint-Denis, a suburb of Paris, play the happy campers (though they could use more direction). When Bucky, who has fled to join his girlfriend Marcia as a counselor, is greeted by camp staffers, they instantly launch into song.
“You’ll get cooler here,” one intones. “Welcome to paradise.”
While this musical pivot 75 minutes into “Nemesis,” sounds odd for the first few scenes, it works as a metaphor. Musical theater is associated in France with happy-go-lucky American exceptionalism, and here it feels absurdly bright, leaving Bucky — who blames himself for abandoning his neighborhood — dumbstruck.
To drive this point home, while the rest of the show is based on the French translation of “Nemesis,” by Marie-Claire Pasquier, the songs — credited to Guillaume Bachelé — are all in English. It’s an understandable choice, even though some of the performers aren’t fully equipped to handle them. (Additionally, like all Odéon productions, “Nemesis” is presented with English subtitles on Fridays. Unfortunately, the only screen is right above the edge of the stage, all but invisible from the first few rows.)
In the role of the younger Bucky, Alexandre Gonin finds a sense of awkward seriousness that never tips over into dullness. A narrator speaks in voice-over throughout, and early on, it’s easy to assume it’s Bucky; as in Roth’s novel, however, we later learn that the narrator is Arnie, one of the children from the Newark playground who contracted polio. Onstage, Arnie (Maxime Dambrin), is revealed to have been narrating behind the scenes from the beginning.
The final section, which is also the shortest, brings the adult Arnie together with a much older Bucky. Both characters suffer from the aftereffects of polio, yet they face off with entirely different perspectives on what happened. Bucky is consumed by lifelong guilt over the role he may have played in spreading polio, while Arnie argues for a life well lived and not limited by disability.
As Bucky, the bilingual American actor Stuart Seide is brilliantly cantankerous, and Dambrin, who has a form of neuropathy that affects his ability to walk, makes a heartfelt match for him. “Chance is everything,” Dambrin pleads.
At this point, it feels as if we’ve lived a life with these characters and their contradictions. It’s a feat Roth often managed on the page. For Raffier to match it onstage is a career-launching achievement.
Through April 21, at the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe (Ateliers Berthier) in Paris; theatre-odeon.eu.
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