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Theater Review

Talk About Alienation

A baffling stage update of 'The Graduate,' that classic movie about 1960s angst, fails to connect. But sales are brisk, thanks to its movie-star cast.

April 05, 2002|LINDA WINER | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK--Whatever the reason for a Broadway adaptation of "The Graduate"....

Oh, never mind. There simply is no reason.

An icon is shattering at the Plymouth Theatre. And, as it turns out, the sound it makes is not a bang or a whimper or even the wistful sound of silence. Instead, Terry Johnson's schlocky stage version of the 1967 zeitgeist movie classic opened Thursday after two befuddling years in London, and the only sound that registers is the dispiriting clang from $5.3 million--the largest advance sale for a straight play in Broadway history.

Yes, Kathleen Turner, still game at 47, drops her towel for a few long seconds to reveal the importance of careful lighting from behind. For all the skin, however, there is not a moment when this tough trucker of a Mrs. Robinson suggests how it felt when Anne Bancroft got emotionally naked for America.

Don't be fooled. My incredulity here has nothing--or next to nothing--to do with boomer nostalgia and panic over revisionist cultural history. The producers and Johnson, who also directs, have come up with a brilliant cross-generational casting formula that plays on an older generation's fantasies of Jessica Rabbit's voice and Turner's legs in their 1981 "Body Heat" debut.

Turner kicked off the London cavalcade of female grown-ups wanting to expose their physical resiliency in the role. In addition, there is the genuine appeal of Jason Biggs--most memorably seen having his way with baked goods in "American Pie"--as Benjamin Braddock, the role that identified both the youthful Dustin Hoffman and youthful alienation as marketable standards. Add Alicia Silverstone, the adorably petulant Cher in "Clueless," as Elaine Robinson, and "The Graduate" should not be so last-century anymore.

But what, then, is it? Try boring. And pointless. Johnson, plucking plot from the movie and from Charles Webb's novel, jerks us around from farce to soaper to slapstick to romantic comedy until theatergoers with a weakness for coherence and consistency of style may justifiably sue for whiplash. Rob Howell's set is a sophisticated concept involving double-decker blond-wood shutters, and his costumes, including hairstyles, avoid being '60s cartoons.

For cartoons, we have the characters--such chipper bubbleheads as Benjamin's mother (Kate Skinner), who squeaks, "I read in the Digest that young people are disillusioned." After Benjamin's affair with his parents' friend comes out, we get a family therapy session in which Benjamin throws a beanbag chair on the head of the hippy shrink.

You following this? After a while--and the first act feels long enough to age a generation--we begin to recognize the genius of the Mike Nichols-Buck Henry film, which told us everything on the basis of a meticulously selected minimum of scenes. Johnson fills in the scenes with conversation and, surprise, the people are not merely unbelievable but incredibly dull.

Biggs is an admirable combination of nerdy and curious, but the world he rejects is not the rich, sleek Los Angeles that nailed a growing anti-materialistic sentiment. These families are pretty tacky in their luxuries, so pathetic that rebellion lacks gravity. There is so little weight in the drama that Elaine and her mother get cutesy-drunk together after the revelation, and when Benjamin tells Elaine that her mother actually seduced him, Silverstone stomps her little feet, waves her little fists and throws herself on his bed as if told she couldn't go to the prom.

As anyone knows who saw Turner in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" or "Indiscretions" on Broadway in the '90s, she is at least as much a Broadway stage creature as a movie star. She has one of those look-at-me, confident qualities that dares you to doubt her. We don't blame her for trying to find a Mrs. Robinson other than the slinky, elegant Bancroft, but this blowsy, common version drains the liberating joy from the inappropriate affair.

And about that nudity. If, indeed, it is essential to the verisimilitude of the material, then why does Benjamin wear his undershorts during hot scenes in the sheets? And who hails a taxi in L.A.? And who needs other pop songs when you have Simon and Garfunkel? In 1967, it seemed "The Graduate" was about Benjamin. Years later, it was hard not to care more about Mrs. Robinson.

But this thing on Broadway isn't about anybody or anything--unless the box office counts.

"The Graduate," Plymouth Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., New York. (212) 239-6200.

Linda Winer is chief theater critic at Newsday, a Tribune company.

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