Take a classic American film — but make sure it’s one the average theatergoer hasn’t seen in 10 or 15 years. Refashion it into a comeback vehicle for a Hollywood lalapalooza — but do it quick, before she’s camp. Stick to stunt casting with the other major roles: a hero of teen sex farces for the lead, a slightly musty princess of romantic comedy to play his true love. Then pack in the audiences by getting the lalapalooza to go the full monty in the first act.
As marketing goes, it’s genius. And it works: After making its relentless, two-year journey from London through the hinterlands, The Graduate is an instant sold-out success on Broadway. But asking for artistry or subtlety — or even a reason for being — from writer-director Terry Johnson’s stage transposition of the 1967 Mike Nichols film? That’s a fool’s mission. Such qualities would interfere with the evening’s regurgitated entertainment.
So, yes, that’s Kathleen Turner dropping her knickers as Mrs. Robinson, and if this is what a 47-year-old actress has to do to get attention nowadays, well, it’s better than Baby Geniuses. Turner is more imperious and physically imposing than Anne Bancroft was in the original; her seduction of Benjamin is as erotic as a panzer assault. This being the comedy of embarrassment, however, such an approach works well; more to the point, Turner nails the whiskeyed weariness of the woman. As for Benjamin Braddock, American Pie’s Jason Biggs is nearly as amiable as Matthew Broderick, whom he imitates in posture, gesture, phrasing, and timing. Nowhere is the squeaky desperation of Dustin Hoffman in evidence.
The surprise of this production — revelation being too strong a word for such a wan highlight reel — is Alicia Silverstone in the beefed-up role of Elaine. If the first act is about Benjamin’s journey from formless child to a man confident in his love for the daughter of the woman he’s been shtupping, the second act is now about Elaine’s own struggle to break free. The Clueless star plays her as a gentle, confused, eminently worthy ditz; it’s not a deep portrait, but it’s more affecting than anything else on display.
Johnson’s script lets Silverstone down, sad to say. Drawing from the Charles Webb novel, it gives Elaine several sequences that weren’t in the film: a drunk scene with Mother, an expanded Berkeley showdown with Ben, and so on. In almost every case, the scenes build a head of dramatic steam only to devolve into bluntly stated subtext.
Look, the original was hardly subtle — it was a better pop event than a movie — but it did have a great, remorseless final shot: runaways Benjamin and Elaine on that city bus, slowly wondering what the hell they’ve done. In Johnson’s Graduate, we get the scene after that. True to form, it starts nicely, with Silverstone doffing her wedding dress with touching gawkiness in a hotel room. It ends not with a bang but a superficial snuggle: Cheerios in bed, Simon & Garfunkel on the sound system, and a glaring ”vacancy” sign the one easy note of doubt.
I have one word for you: plastics.