`Graduate' only hit at box office

Review: This sold-out revival is bound for Broadway, but the play adds little to the book or movie.

January 19, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The Graduate is going to matriculate to Broadway all right. And it's going to do it on a wave of money. But based on the evidence at the Mechanic Theatre, it's not going to graduate with honors.

The original London production - which opened with Kathleen Turner bravely baring all, as she is doing again here - ends its nearly two-year run today, having made $10 million.

The 10-day Baltimore engagement sold out before the first curtain rose (a first in Mechanic history). Toronto, the next stop on the three-city tryout tour, also is sold out. And Boston, the final pre-Broadway destination, has extended its run one week. To date, advance sales have exceeded $3 million on Broadway, where the show begins previews at Plymouth Theatre on March 15.

So, monetarily speaking, The Graduate is off to a good start. Artistically, it's on shakier ground.

The point of any adaptation should be to enlarge, improve or illuminate the source material. When director Mike Nichols turned Charles Webb's 1963 novel into a movie, he found the perfect visual and aural complements to enhance Webb's themes of the generation gap and disaffected youth.

For the first half of the movie, whenever recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock wasn't in bed with Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father's law partner, he seemed to be floating in his parents' pool or sitting in front of his bedroom aquarium - at sea in either case. And to reinforce his alienation, there was Simon and Garfunkel's soundtrack, with songs like "Sound of Silence" ("Hello, darkness, my old friend").

Granted, the stage version - directed and adapted by British playwright Terry Johnson from the novel and screenplay - opens with a reference to the water motif, and also features recorded instrumentals from a smattering of Simon and Garfunkel's greatest hits. But overall, the play adds little to the book or movie. Not only is the staging excessively episodic and slow-moving (particularly in the first act), but instead of live performances increasing the characters' humanity, the characterizations have become over-simplified and narrow.

Turner's seductive Mrs. Robinson is the best example. Hardly a sweetheart to start with, onstage she's not just a "lascivious alcoholic" (in Benjamin's words) but cold-hearted, mean-spirited and so self-absorbed, she makes Jason Biggs' mixed-up, insensitive Benjamin seem almost decent and fair-minded by comparison.

Johnson has added several scenes not present in the book or movie, and two of these show Mrs. Robinson interacting with her daughter, Elaine, played with sugary sweet naivete by Alicia Silverstone, in her major stage debut.

In the play's penultimate scene, Elaine overhears Mrs. Robinson telling Benjamin what she really thinks of her daughter, then mother and daughter have it out in an exchange that sends Elaine crying into Benjamin's arms. This at least partially explains why Elaine might end up with Benjamin, but it also turns Mrs. Robinson into a Gorgon.

Turner launches into this role with guts and fury, but Johnson's script leaves her no depth or mystery to explore. Comparisons to the movie's Anne Bancroft are almost beside the point; Turner has been handed a far more limited palette to work with.

Like Silverstone's portrayal of Elaine, Biggs' Benjamin seems younger and less mature than his celluloid counterpart (Dustin Hoffman).

The play's new closing scene takes us beyond the movie, showing us what happens immediately after Benjamin spirits Elaine away from her wedding to a parentally approved beau. It's a scene in which both characters seem to revert to second childhoods.

Two other added scenes - one showing a drunken mother and daughter, and the other in which Benjamin and his parents (Murphy Guyer and Kate Skinner) visit a shrink - are simply extraneous.

The stage play brings one asset to the material, however. Theater is less naturalistic than film, and designer Rob Howell's set is stunning on both a metaphorical and literal level. The set's central feature is its four walls, which are made up entirely of tall, white louvered doors, with the fourth wall serving as a kind of curtain.

Benjamin feels hemmed in, and these shutter-like doors - most of which remain closed - represent the limited possibilities he sees in front of him. Howell's set is an example of the imagination needed throughout the production.

It's become fairly routine to transfer classic movie musicals to the stage, from 42nd Street to Singin' in the Rain to The Wizard of Oz, although it's rare for one of these stage musicals to equal (much less surpass) its cinematic source. Transferring a non-musical movie to the stage is more unusual, and without the added benefits of live dancing and singing, it's even tougher to pull off.

Webb's novel and Nichols' movie were about alienated youth disavowing establishment values. The Broadway-bound stage version is all about commercialization - movie-star casting and marketing aimed at making the box office go ka-ching.

In that respect, the show appears to be doing just fine. But somewhere the spirit of Benjamin Braddock is running for cover.

The Graduate, which presented a week of previews before officially opening Thursday, continues its run at the Mechanic, 25 Hopkins Plaza, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. today, and 1 p.m. tomorrow. Though the engagement is sold out, some tickets may be available due to last-minute cancellations. For information, call 410-752-1200.

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