Adapting the iconic 1967 film, “The Graduate,” into a work for the stage probably seemed like a good idea back a dozen or so years. After all, the Mike Nichols movie with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft is on the U.S. National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.” A stage version would be money in the bank. A British dramatist, Terry Johnson, touted the plan. Producers bought into it.
Johnson’s adaptation of “The Graduate” gained some moderate success in London’s West End but found less acclaim on Broadway, despite a star turn by Kathleen Turner. Since 2002, Johnson’s play of the movie and the 1963 novel by Charles Webb has toured internationally and now is found regionally and on college campuses.
So much for culture, history or aesthetics. Everything that could possibly be learned about recent, vapid college graduate Benjamin Braddock; his insipid parents; a middle-aged seductress named Mrs. Robinson; her blowhard, cuckolded husband; and her daughter, sweet but indecisive Elaine, was brought to light and life by the late director Nichols on the big screen. Adapter Johnson borrowed mightily from both book and film, 1960s angst – nary a mention of Vietnam – but facilitated on continuity and forgot credibility. Some of the rewritten dialogue is awfully lame, most likely because there is nothing new or better to say. Surprise is absent. The play begins, it continues, it’s watchable, listenable, there are a few things to care about, it ends. “The Graduate,” the play, is not “bad” but it barely gets to “good.”
Neal Radice’s Alleyway Theatre has opened the “regional premiere” of “The Graduate.” Todd Warfield directs and he admirably does what he can to make the evening fast and on occasion, interesting. His dutiful cast is fine: Tyler Brown as confused, jejune Benjamin; Constance Caldwell as sultry Mrs. Robinson; David C. Mitchell as Mr. Robinson; Eliza Vann as Elaine; Timothy Patrick Finnegan and Joyce Stilson, as Ben’s befuddled parents; and David Haefner and Jasmine Ramos in multiple roles. It’s a hard-working, able group, even when portrayals tilt toward the cartoonish.
The story centers around Benjamin’s uneasy entrance into the adult world, a transition complicated by his summer-long tryst with Mrs. Robinson, further jumbled by a relationship with her daughter, Elaine, dates that send Mr. Robinson into a rage and Ben’s ditzy parents to a shrink. Brown, nerdy but conniving and caught up in a mess of his own making, stammers and mumbles explanations to anyone who’ll listen, to no avail. It’s a tough role; Brown is terrific in his terror. The cool, feline Caldwell brings a darker side to Mrs. Robinson – finally, some substance – unlikable, bored and loveless, a mean-spirited alcoholic. This often lauded actress skillfully paints, over many scenes, a partial picture of the predatory, world-weary Mrs. Robinson, in homage to Simon & Garfunkel’s movie melody and the line: “We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files.”
Veteran actors Mitchell, Finnegan and Stilson are enjoyable and ingenue Vann, the object of Ben’s skewed affection, is a pleasant discovery.
Director Warfield uses well some 1960s music, saving “Mrs. Robinson” for last.
Instead, the Mamas & Papas, the Beach Boys and the Turtles are cleverly revived.
The Alleyway, to its credit, has taken a risk with this stage version of “The Graduate,” knowing that it’s showing its age, “cutting edge” no more. But, the play, questionably “adapted,” underscores an old adage: sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone.
What: “The Graduate”
Where: Alleyway Theatre, 1 Curtain Up Alley
When: Through Feb. 14
Info: www.alleyway.com, 852-2600