Stars of 'The Graduate' doing their homework

Jason Biggs returns to plays after double helping of 'Pie'

Alicia Silverstone hits the books to study up for her first 'real' stage role.

Theater

January 06, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

They weren't even born when the movie came out, but Jason Biggs and Alicia Silverstone are catching up fast. The young actors are co-starring with Kathleen Turner in the stage adaptation of the 1967 movie The Graduate.

The play makes its American premiere Thursday at the Mechanic Theatre, the first stop in a three-city tryout tour that will take it from Baltimore to Toronto to Boston before opening on Broadway in April.

Directed and adapted by Terry Johnson, the production made its debut in London last year with Turner creating the role of seductive Mrs. Robinson. Biggs and Silverstone are both newcomers to the show. They shared their early impressions in separate interviews from New York.

JASON BIGGS

The first time actor Biggs, who plays Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, met Turner, she asked if he would feel comfortable with her brief nude scene.

"I said, 'Have you seen American Pie? Don't you worry,' " Biggs recalls with a laugh, while munching a roast beef sandwich during a rehearsal break.

The 23-year-old actor was referring to what has become his defining movie role -- that of a teen-ager so sexually frustrated he has, er, "relations" with an apple pie.

Two and a half years after the movie's release, Biggs -- whose conversation balances thoughtful reflection with refreshing irreverence -- admits he's grown a bit tired of discussing what one national magazine dubbed his "pastryphilia." But that doesn't mean he has any regrets about American Pie or his second helping, American Pie 2.

"I'm proud that I'm the pie guy, who put my inhibitions aside and went for it," he says. "That movie has done wonderful things for me, so I'm forever in debt to that pie."

The character Biggs is playing now, however, has graduated from baked goods. As Benjamin, he will be seduced eight times a week by an older woman, and not just any older woman, but one played by Turner, who has continued to raise male temperatures ever since her own breakthrough movie, Body Heat.

"We have some moments where if you're not comfortable, it can be strange and weird. We have some intimate moments, and she's been wonderful about making me feel comfortable," he says.

Although Biggs hasn't been on stage in a decade, Broadway is where he got his start. Both he and co-star Silverstone began their careers as child models. But unlike Silverstone, a California girl who moved immediately into a film career, Biggs, who grew up in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., cut his dramatic teeth on stage, playing opposite Judd Hirsch in Herb Gardner's 1992 Broadway play, Conversations With My Father. Biggs was 13 at the time. The New York Times called his performance "exceptional." But he hasn't been back on stage since.

Instead, he played continuing roles on two TV series and a soap, As the World Turns, and starred in such movies as American Pie, Loser and Saving Silverman. (Prozac Nation, his latest and heaviest dramatic film, will be released later this year.)

Director Amy Heckerling included some references to The Graduate in Loser, and more than one writer compared Biggs to Dustin Hoffman, a comparison that's all the more daunting now that Biggs is about to step into the role that launched Hoffman's career.

"The comparisons are inevitable," Biggs says of portraying Benjamin. "We're working with the same material, the same characters, the same title, a lot of the same dialogue."

Yet, he adds, "I hope people can see me in this role and say, 'OK, that's another way to go with it.' No one's going to forget about Dustin Hoffman. I'm certainly not. It's one of those amazing performances. I hope people just give me an opportunity to put my own spin on it and reinvent the role."

Asked to describe his spin on the character -- a recent college graduate who returns to his parents' California home, has an affair with the wife of his father's law partner and then falls in love with her daughter -- Biggs explains, "He's very confused. He's sort of mad at the world, too. He's full of angst and confusion and bitterness about what is supposed to be the norm -- the norm that his parents have settled into ... the upper middle class social norm."

Does he identify with Benjamin? "He's sleeping with an alcoholic, middle-aged woman, that I can really relate to -- kidding," he says, quickly switching to a more serious tone. "I can relate to that angst and confusion about what is the next step and feeling like a caged bird that needs to spread his wings. I think Benjamin is a little meaner. I enjoy his facetiousness. I think his sarcasm is really great, but sometimes it's too heavy and too mean. ... He's not the most likable of characters."

Biggs differs from Benjamin in another important respect as well. While Benjamin appears to be drifting aimlessly, Biggs has always known "exactly what I want. I have my head on pretty straight. I think he's still trying to screw his head on a bit."

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