The Graduate Adapted and directed by Terry Johnson. Sets and costumes by Rob Howell. Lighting designed by Hugh Vanstone. Sound design by Christopher Cronin. Cast: Kathleen Turner, Jason Biggs, Alicia Silverstone, Murphy Guyer, Kate Skinner, Victor Slezak, Larry Cahn, Susan Cella, John Hillner, Jurian Hughes, Robert Emmet Lunney, Judson Pearce Morgan, Kelly Overton.
It would be hard to find a work that cried out less for a stage adaptation than The Graduate. Charles Webb's fast-paced 1963 novel was made into a memorable film by Mike Nichols starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft. What more was there to say?
The answer, judging by the appalling new stage adaptation now threatening the Plymouth Theatre with a lengthy run, is nothing.
Terry Johnson directed his own adaptation of the novel and film into a considerable hit in London. In that production, as in this one, Kathleen Turner originated the role of the seductive Mrs. Robinson who sets her sights on the young college graduate Benjamin Braddock, whose future looks bright to everyone but him, and will let nothing stand in her way.
Ben's attempt to find his place in an adult world is really the point of the story, and in the previous incarnations, Mrs. Robinson was more a formidable obstacle than the Major Star Turn Ms. Turner has here. The other vital roles of Benjamin and Elaine (Mrs. Robinson's daughter, the forbidden love with whom Benjamin becomes enraptured), have been cast with young film stars Jason Biggs and Alicia Silverstone.
The stage version attempts to balance elements of the film and book but finds the worst in both and the best in neither. There's no sense of innocence, visual style, or 1960s period flavor to spice things up, making the staging (with many ideas borrowed from the film), and the dialogue (with much material from the original novel) bland and ineffective. Merely having the elements isn't enough if they aren't put together well, and here they make a confusing mess even if you don't know the original coming-of-age story.
That Johnson abandoned all hope of a thoughtful, intelligent adaptation is evident during the play's first few moments. The curtain rises on Benjamin, clad in a wet suit, sitting in his bedroom avoiding the graduation party being thrown for him. It is almost immediately that Mrs. Robinson arrives for the famous seduction scene, which takes place, nonsensically, with his parents and numerous guests downstairs. (The scene originally took place in her empty house, not his full one.)
The scene, like so many to follow, is a meaningless mish-mash of elements, a haphazard combination of scenes from the book and movie that is a poor interpretation of events and makes no dramatic sense. This scene severely undercuts Mrs. Robinson's determination and craftiness later; it wasn't enough for Johnson to give her a first name, he had to make her stupid, too?
This initial scene is probably the most damaging, but Johnson has provided four other entirely new (and thoroughly execrable) scenes. One, set in a therapist's office, is an embarrassment, a way for Johnson to cover up mistakes revising the plot elsewhere. The other three - including a complete rewrite of the famous wedding scene - exist primarily to beef up Elaine's character, attempting to make her a modern, more complicated woman.
The Elaine of this interpretation is a near-vegetarian feminist, but is still supposed to feel inferior to Ben. The dialogue Johnson forgot to exclude in which she worries about her suitability for such a worldly, intellectual mate rings completely false after her lengthy accounts of travel, art, and modern animal-rights credos. Plagued with contradictions and the show's worst dialogue (most of it new), it's a burden no actor should be forced to bear, and Alicia Silverstone is stuck with a hopeless cause.
Biggs and Turner have it hard as well, having to draw lines of connection between the many disparate events of Johnson's script, and perform embarrassing staging, including a montage of under-the-sheets sex acts choreographed to "Wouldn't It Be Nice?" While Biggs looks the right age, he's too sly and knowing for Ben; Hoffman was years old, but seemed younger. Katherine Turner is a good match for Biggs, but never finds a way to explain Mrs. Robinson's behavior. Bancroft's vulnerability did it in the film, and it's unreasonable to expect Turner to make the same choice, but is it not reasonable to expect her to make a choice? She's not alone. All the smaller roles, without exception, are embarrassingly performed, one-dimensional portrayals by actors who should all know better.
But they can't be blamed entirely, as their playwright and director gave them nothing to work with. This version of The Graduate plays as a Cliffs Notes telling of the story, with no detail or color holding the pieces together. There may be decent sets (Rob Howell's assorted variety of creatively-used doors) and lights (Hugh Vanstone) or workable if unexciting costumes (also by Howell), but the story, robbed of its nuances and subtext, never lives onstage. Johnson succeeds only in making the show as simpleminded and overt as possible, leaving the actors nothing exciting to play. The result is one that seemed impossible: a more brainless, soulless, and heartless show than this season's other major British import, Mamma Mia!
But intelligence and good drama don't seem to have been the point here. The point was to put a famous film onstage with Kathleen Turner doing a nude scene - how could the money not roll in? That is the only way in which The Graduate really succeeds; it is a painful, embarrassing failure in all other areas.
The book and the film of The Graduate are classics for a reason. The stage version, like Ben's affair with Mrs. Robinson, proves conclusively that some things are best avoided.