What's that? You say Mrs. Robinson is pitiful?

TheaterReview

January 09, 2004|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

What a difference not quite four decades can make.

When many of us first saw that seminal film The Graduate, we were roughly the same age as the main character, Benjamin Braddock. We shared his alienation from and jaundiced perspective on the adult world.

Now, many of us have college-age children of our own. Suddenly, the older generation, members of which Benjamin refers to as "grotesques," doesn't seem quite so ridiculous. It's the son who comes across as callow, arrogant, self-righteous and, yes, a bit laughable.

That shift in perspective helps to explain the failure of the staged version of The Graduate, currently limping along for a two-week run at the Mechanic Theatre. It's not only the audience's point of view that has changed; the show's creators, themselves, seem unsure of which characters deserve our empathy and respect.

The film version of The Graduate is Benjamin's story, and because it takes itself as seriously as the protagonist does it is a social satire, full of tragedy and pathos and comedy. (At times the film takes itself a bit too seriously; in one famous sequence, the angst-ridden adolescent becomes a cross-wielding Christ figure, a comparison more difficult to sustain in 2004 than in 1967, when the film was released.)

But the stage play seems told from the point of view of another character entirely, although which one never is clear, perhaps one of the nameless, adult family friends invited to Benjamin's graduation party. Our fictitious observer is amused by the events that take place before his eyes, but not particularly affected by them, and his detachment infects the audience.

Our observer must be a relatively new friend of the family, because he seems not to know the neighbors particularly well.

For instance, the Mrs. Robinson that we meet is as cold and as hard as the cubes clinking against the sides of her double old-fashioned glass. In the stage show, this seductive older woman lacks even a tinge of the underlying desperation and unhappiness that the character has in the film, and that makes her a figure more to be pitied than despised.

Linda Gray, a last-minute replacement for Lorraine Bracco, who dropped out because of a family emergency, seems to enjoy letting her inner dominatrix come out to play. If anything, she is too much in control of the situation, with nary a lock of her perfectly coifed French twist out of place.

As for the famous dropped towel scene, let's just say that it is so dimly lit and the Mechanic is so large that if you didn't know in advance that Gray is nude on stage, you might not be any the wiser once the scene ends.

As Benjamin, Jonathan Kaplan has all the appeal - and about as much substance - as a puppy who doesn't know whether to snarl at a stranger or lick his face, while Devon Sorvari's Elaine is more spirited and less saccharine than other actresses portraying that character have been.

Any flaws in the acting are likely less the result of deficiencies in the performers than they are of a badly underwritten script that sends the actors scurrying around the stage like wind-up toys, bereft of motivation. (A scene not in the movie in which Benjamin and his parents visit a family therapist is particularly unfunny and heavy-handed.)

The one moment of genuine acting occurs when Mr. Robinson confronts Benjamin upon learning that the young man has been having an affair with his wife. Dennis Parlato's rage and pain at being betrayed by his best friend's son, who he has known all his life and to whom he has tried to be kind, is galvanizing and gives a fleeting glimpse of what this show could have been.

Rob Howell's lovely set of a series of double-decker shuttered doors implies that Benjamin's central problem is that he is paralyzed by his very opportunities, by the seemingly limitless directions that his life could take.

Perhaps unfortunately, the set serves as a kind of metaphor for the production as a whole. Not only does Benjamin not know where he is going, neither does this play.

The Graduate

Where: The Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m., 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $20-$57.50

Information: 410-481-7328 or visit www.ticketmaster.com

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