In spite of the poor reviews The Graduate got in London, I found myself compelled to buy advance tickets to the original Broadway run starring Kathleen Turner, Jason Biggs and Alicia Silverstone. The movie has always been one of my all-time favorites, and though I couldn't imagine how such a "cinematic" film with its innovative and highly creative film editing could translate to the stage, I looked on this as a must-see. After seeing the Broadway production, I forced myself into some deep contemplation to understand my decision.
I knew it was more than curiosity that drew me to it. I concluded that it was a desire to get closer to the characters I loved from the movie, to learn more about them, to be in the same room with them. As theatergoers, we frequently see multiple casts and productions of the same play for the same reasons - to learn something different about the characters through a different set of interpretations by cast and director. To those critics and aesthetes who look at stage productions or remakes of hit movies and scoffingly ask, "why?", I would say that's why. However, I will never cite this or the Broadway production of The Graduate as support for my argument.
While Terry Johnson managed to write a fairly workable stage adaptation of The Graduate's screenplay, his interpretation of the work (both on Broadway and as recreated here by his Graduate Production Supervisor Peter Lawrence) is to play it as broad comedy, creating none of the sympathy for Ben and Elaine that was the heart of the movie. Mike Nichols' film was all about feelings, established mainly through the understated performances of Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katherine Ross, and shown largely in extreme close-ups. The story wasn't always plausible; we had to guess at a lot of the characters' back stories and motivations, but we understood and cared about their emotions.
Johnson efficiently captures most of the film's famous bits in the first act (like the admonition to think about "plastics" and Ben's check-in at the hotel), and he realizes he has to provide dialogue to establish character in place of the close-ups that served Hoffman, Ms. Bancroft and Ms. Ross so well. However, the additional dialogue, including a pointless drunken discussion between Mrs. Robinson and Elaine after the revelation of the mother's affair with Ben, the wedding scene and some extended scenes between Elaine and Ben, adds nothing of interest. To be honest, I don't even remember what they talked about.
I didn't much care for Kathleen Turner's performance on Broadway, but Lorraine Bracco (Turner's Broadway replacement) is just wrong here. She shouts every line at roughly the same volume and pitch, playing Mrs. Robinson as a boring and totally unappealing drunk. While she's a bit more svelte than Ms. Turner, Ms. Bracco's Mrs. R. shows no other reasons why Ben would be attracted to her, afraid of her, or have any emotions at all about her. Her character is the sort of person you would simply try to ignore. Also, one hopes that before her next stage assignment, someone will tell her that there are no additional "takes" on stage. If you flub a line, it is not accepted practice to break character, laugh to the audience and start over.
Jonathan C. Kaplan, whose Broadway credits include Peter in Diary of Anne Frank with Natalie Portman and, twelve years ago, little Jason of Falsettos, plays Ben. Kaplan seems to be a talented guy and is certainly more confident on stage than was Jason Biggs. Kaplan's direction to play Ben mostly with physical slapstick just doesn't work very well, though. He's more than energetic and gets a few laughs, but he isn't quite able to build a coherent character from all the business Ben has to perform.
Johnson's take on Elaine is the biggest departure from the screenplay. As Alicia Silverstone did on Broadway before her, Devon Sorvari plays her as an idealistic but ditzy and indecisive coed. She's sweet and likable but has nothing near the charisma of Katherine Ross' Elaine. It's hard to believe she would arouse the passion in Ben that could inspire him to cause so much trouble in the second act. Dennis Robinson as her father gives the best performance of the cast, establishing our sympathy for Mr. Robinson and effectively using a range of acting moods from understatement to rage.
Rob Howell's set is ingenious. It creates a grid of identical window/doors all using horizontal wooden blinds, recalling the doors in the film's hotel room setting. These panels alternate as doors and windows, revealing different backdrops or lighting effects to suggest the changes in scene ranging from the Robinson's home to Ben's rented room in Berkeley; and from a barroom to a church.
There may be some potential for this adaptation under the hands of a different director, or with leading players not chosen for their film or TV fame. It seems that the adaptation is serviceable enough that regional, college and community groups might be able to have some fun with it, without so totally losing the heart of the film. When that day comes, though, I'm not sure I'll be the first in line for tickets.
The Graduate continues through Sunday, March 14th at the Shubert Theater. For ticket and performance information, call (312) 902-1400 or visit broadwayinchicago.com. The national tour continues through June, with stops in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Providence, Nashville and Detroit.