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The Graduate (04/04/2002 - 03/02/2003)


New York Daily News: "Naked Truth: It's Hard to Care, Mrs. Robinson"

In 1967, the year Mike Nichols' film "The Graduate" came out, Time magazine, unable to name an individual as Man of the Year, gave that honor to the entire generation of Americans under the age of 25. In its own way, "The Graduate" was also an expression of messianic faith in the young. Its then-subversive plot, about a college boy bedding an older woman - one of his parents' best friends - reflected a belief that liberating ourselves sexually would usher in an era free of neuroses, a time of genuine peace and love. Now that we no longer harbor such illusions, why, you might ask, do we need a stage version of the movie? I wish I could tell you. The prime reason seems to be a chance to see Kathleen Turner, playing the sexually ravenous Mrs. Robinson, in the nude. Always on the lookout for progress in the theater, I am delighted to report we have made big strides from Nicole Kidman simply displaying her tushie for about 10 seconds. With Turner, we get easily 15 seconds of full frontal nudity as she flaunts her 46-year-old, big-boned body, admittedly in dimmer light than Kidman allowed. Later, we have an opportunity to see her elegant breasts in clear light as she sports with Benjamin Braddock (played by Jason Biggs) in a mechanical bedroom romp. Although I have tried to live up to Time magazine's expectations in other ways, I have not shared my generation's obsession with building better abs and biceps. So I can only envy what Turner has achieved. Whether you want to sit through two hours and 20 minutes of a not-very-amusing play for this display is up to you. Our world is totally different from that of 1963, when "The Graduate" is set. Almost none of what made Charles Webb's novel or Nichols' film shocking makes any sense today. Nor does the adaptation by Terry Johnson (who also directed) help much. To begin with, Turner's Mrs. Robinson is not the wildly neurotic, uncontrolled creature she was in Anne Bancroft's hands. Here, she has the demeanor of an Army drill sergeant putting a recruit through his paces. This is apparent in the daunting way she stands and in her booming voice. (Is she auditioning as a replacement for "Bea Arthur on Broadway"?) Her domineering tone seems fueled by an anger that makes the character unnecessarily unattractive. What she exhibits toward Benjamin is not desire, but relentless libidinal demand, which makes it almost inevitable that Biggs responds with an equally one-note defensiveness that grows quickly tiresome. As their two-minute ballet in bed indicates, there is no emotional component in this relationship. That being the case, why should we care? As the Robinsons' daughter, Elaine, Alicia Silverstone has a surprisingly whiny voice that undercuts what is supposed to be her innocent appeal. Nor do we ever understand why Benjamin pursues her so urgently. The actors work hard, but the writing invariably turns them into cartoons. Every scene has the monotonous verbal rhythm of a listless game of badminton. Unable to find a stage equivalent for the film's surreal ending, Johnson has written a ditzy final scene that only points up the meaninglessness of Benjamin's unmotivated courtship of Elaine. Rob Howell's sets are monotonous. His costumes do little to suggest the period. In 1967, the times provided the subtext for "The Graduate." Neither the times nor the actors seem capable of that today, making its transition to the stage an exercise in hollowness.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "Graduate Flunks"

When was the last time you saw a successful play made from a movie? Not a musical, but a straight play. Last season's "Judgment at Nuremberg"? Hardly a success. "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial"? Close, but no cigar.

That said, Terry Johnson's "The Graduate," which opened at the Plymouth Theatre last night, is not as good as one hoped it might be, but not quite as bad as one feared it could be.

Creditably mediocre would probably be the phrase for it - mediocre, with a few incidental pleasures along the way, not least of which are its stars, the formidable Kathleen Turner, Jason Biggs (of "American Pie" fame) and a cute and funny Alicia Silverstone, that sometime Batgirl.

The 1967 movie, directed by Mike Nichols, made Dustin Hoffman a star, raised Anne Bancroft to an icon, gave Simon and Garfunkel an imperishable hit, and was the ultimate coming-of-age movie - the coming of age not of a person but of a particular generation.

With "The Graduate," Nichols and his screenwriters marked and commemorated the change in the '60s to a more open, wilder America in which authority was questioned. This manipulative and predatory play does no such thing.

Johnson, a British playwright and director, has adapted his text from the original novel by Charles Webb and the screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry.

Comparisons with the movie might be invidious, but the play wouldn't be on Broadway - or indeed, anywhere else - had not the fame of the film preceded it. And that movie can still be rented for a few bucks, rather less than even a discount seat to a Broadway show.

Johnson has tried hard to instill new life into this very '60s story of a graduate (Biggs) being seduced by a woman twice his age (Turner) only to fall obsessively in love with her daughter (Silverstone).

But it doesn't really work in either tone or energy. Even the choice of the sappy happy ending, with the newlyweds in bed flicking cereal bits at one another, has nothing of the awful and apt ambiguity of the movie's conclusion.

Using a recording of "Mrs. Robinson" as exit music just adds a crass insult to unnecessary injury.

But the Broadway cast is better than OK - rather better than the cast I saw in London, after Turner had departed from the original West End production - but still doesn't bear comparison with the movie itself.

Turner, with a rusty voice that makes Lauren Bacall sound like a shrill pennywhistle, is unzipped, bullying and pitiless fun as Mrs. Robinson.

She also, in the play's notorious nude scene, no-nonsensically reveals a great deal more than a coy Nicole Kidman did in similar circumstances. Mind you, Turner has a great deal more to reveal.

What she doesn't have is Bancroft's super-cool, dry-martini insolence, any more than Biggs, quite charming in his way, has the awesome, gawky charisma with which Hoffman diffidently announced that a star was born.

The West End designer Rob Howell has produced, with his cathedral-walled setting, an American scene that no American is likely to recognize, although it does have a certain cinematic utility value in its quick dissolves. Unfortunately, though it may move fast, it always looks very much the same.

The lesser roles, apart from the cheerfully giddy Silverstone, are often well done, particularly Victor Slezak as the dignified cuckolded husband. Am I the only one who remembers Buck Henry as the hotel desk clerk?

But enough of the movie - and, for that matter, enough of the play. Perhaps too much.

New York Post

New York Times: "In a Costume Designed by Nature"

Twenty seconds.

That, give or take a few seconds, is how long the beauteous movie star Kathleen Turner stands stark naked in ''The Graduate,'' the weary new comedy that opened last night at the Plymouth Theater.

This dimly lighted moment of exposure generated heavy-breathing headlines in London when Ms. Turner appeared there two years ago in the same play (inspired by the 1967 film of the same title), and it is presumably one big reason the show's New York incarnation has a $5.3 million advance ticket sale. (It doesn't hurt that the production features Jason Biggs and Alicia Silverstone, the young stars of the hit films ''American Pie'' and ''Clueless,'' respectively.)

With top seats for ''The Graduate'' going for $76.25, those 20 seconds cost close to $4 each for theatergoers interested only in full-frontal star gazing. So for those who have yet to purchase their tickets, the following series of questions and answers is intended as a helpful consumer guide.

Q. Is she really entirely naked?

A. No, she is wearing high heels.

Q. What is the lighting like?

A. Good question. You might be interested to learn that the London production garnered only one Olivier Award (the English equivalent of the Tony), and that was for lighting by Hugh Vanstone. In her nude scene, Ms. Turner is bathed in tactful but forbidding twilight that, like most of the show's humor, is blue.

Q. Cut to the chase. How does she look?

A. Terrific, although not so much luscious as imperial. Think of a marble statue of some vengeful Roman deity (Juno, perhaps) in a courtyard in old Pompeii.

Q. Is she holding in her stomach?

A. Opinion is divided here, but it would appear she is. Under the circumstances, wouldn't you?

Q. Can you buy those cool Mrs. Robinson bath towels (in honor of the lascivious housewife played by Ms. Turner) that were on sale in London, to commemorate this moment?

A. Alas, for now, no.

And there you have the crux of ''The Graduate.'' Otherwise, the play feels barer -- and certainly less substantial -- than Ms. Turner in the altogether. Inspired by Mike Nichols's benchmark movie and the earlier cult novel by Charles Webb, this leering, undercooked show is the most cynical specimen to date of the theater's current vogue for cannibalizing Hollywood classics.

In shaping the production, its adapter and director, Terry Johnson, has dipped deeper into Mr. Webb's original novel, adding scenes that were not in the movie. Overall, though, it's the same story that won the hearts of young and misunderstood-feeling moviegoers 35 years ago while pushing Dustin Hoffman into instant stardom as the disaffected college graduate of the title.

Once again you find Benjamin Braddock (Mr. Biggs) fretting over his future in empty, materialistic Southern California, and marking time by going to bed with Mrs. Robinson (Ms. Turner), an alcoholic friend of his parents, and falling in love with her daughter, Elaine (Ms. Silverstone).

That the movie today seems less dated than most anti-establishment films of its time has much to do with its cinematic inventiveness. Mr. Nichols and his cinematographer, Robert Surtees, made California sunlight seem suffocating and turned backyard swimming pools into sterile isolation chambers.

And of course there was the sublime Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson, creating an entirely new paradigm for the all-American vamp: a hard-drinking, vulpine, glacially composed woman who despite her evil ways became a serious sex object for moviegoing suburban youths.

The film may have been schematic in its disdain for the grotesqueness of the affluent society, but it still pulses with emotional energy and conflict. The stage version, on the other hand, turns the same plot into what is essentially a long-running dirty joke. Nearly everything seems as flat and two-dimensional as construction paper, as if this were ''The Graduate: The Board Game.''

All this felt less offensive in London, where you could shrug the play off as another instance of those wacky English people making fun of those wacky cartoons called Americans. There was also the fascination of the feverish gratitude that Ms. Turner's nude scene (like Nicole Kidman's several years earlier in ''The Blue Room'') inspired in the press. ''O gracious and glamorous celebrity,'' went the subtext. ''Thank you for doffing your kit for us.''

On American shores, ''The Graduate'' seems more blatantly exploitative, suggesting Broadway's own answer to the Tonya Harding-Paula Jones boxing match. The show trafficks easily and cheaply in memories of the movie and the Q ratings of its stars, while gloating over the more relaxed sexual attitudes of the 21st century. Hey, you didn't get to watch Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman simulate oral sex.

Rob Howell's minimal set, a wall of louvered doors of the kind you would find on a poolhouse, suggests a world in which clothes are removed quickly and everything stays casual.

Visual and physical jokes that blended into the mise-en-scène of the movie (e.g., Mrs. Robinson's blowing smoke from her mouth after Benjamin kisses her) are heightened into sight gags. The show relies heavily on associative triggers that stir memories of the movie and let you fill in the blanks.

Thus the evening begins with the amplified sounds of Benjamin's breathing in a scuba diver's mask, which in the film was famously rendered through the character's glassed-in perspective. The uttering of catchwords and phrases from the movie (like ''Plastics'') are set up laboriously and presented in capital letters. The fabled Simon and Garfunkel music is used mostly in teasing phrases, with fuller use of songs by groups like the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas.

Benjamin's youthful angst and Mrs. Robinson's middle-aged anger have been turned into stepping stones to punch lines. Mr. Biggs and Ms. Silverstone often give the impression that they are inventing their dialogue on the spot in an acting class.

Mr. Biggs has some funny line deliveries, but they never seem to connect to a character. Ms. Silverstone looks pretty and gives a squeaky, frightened performance. Their scenes together limp along blandly, never building. Still, how could anyone make palatable the play's version of Elaine, who is one of those dewy, exceedingly whimsical 60's-style waifs. (She loves taxi drivers because she believes they are all ''fallen angels.'')

There are other performers who embody in shrill satirical ways -- with costumes to match by Mr. Howell -- the hypocrisies of the older generation and period trendiness. (Don't even ask about the Timothy Leary-like guru.) But only Ms. Turner is any fun at all to watch.

In keeping with the tone of the evening, she plays Mrs. Robinson on one single deep-voiced note, evoking infinite jadedness and bottomless appetites. She tends to plant herself solidly and defiantly on the stage as she delivers withering, deadpan epigrams, occasionally whipping back her head like a restless mare.

Hers is a commanding presence, all right, although it might have been more appropriate in a guest spot on the late lamented ''Xena: Warrior Princess.'' At any moment you expect her to say, ''Foolish mortal, how dare you defy me.''

Still, in the terms of what this ''Graduate'' is selling, a star is a star. And Ms. Turner definitely gives off starlight. There are also a couple of moments -- one when Mrs. Robinson kicks off a shoe; another when she leaps springily into bed -- when Ms. Turner exudes a delighted, sprightly energy that make you realize she may be enjoying herself. It's nice to think that someone is.

New York Times

USA Today: "This new 'Graduate' barely passes"

Just about a year ago, a new stage adaptation of a 1960s film classic fully recaptured, and added to, the magic of the original. That's because a) The Producers offered the kind of broad, bawdy comedy and larger-than-life characters that can readily translate to a big Broadway show, and b) the creative mind behind the movie did the translating, with help from the most inventive director/choreographer in contemporary musical theater.

The new stage adaptation of a 1960s film classic that opened at Broadway's Plymouth Theatre Thursday night does not, unfortunately, benefit from any such asset. The Graduate (** out of four) is not a complete disaster, but it provides a needed reminder of the risks posed by reworking a big-screen favorite for live audiences.

Like The Sweet Smell of Success, another film that recently became theater fodder, 1967's The Graduate relied greatly on the kind of nuances of mood and expression most keenly conveyed through a camera lens. It's no discredit to Calder Willingham and Buck Henry's screenplay that some of the movie's best moments lay in flickers of emotion that only register close up, and the atmosphere — so redolent of a certain point in American culture — that director Mike Nichols distilled so brilliantly.

In the play, which Terry Johnson adapted from Charles Webb's novel as well as the film, that resonance is lost. Rob Howell's functional set design could, but for a few period flourishes, represent any late-20th-century, upper-middle-class environment just as easily as the 1964 California that Ben Braddock is thrust into.

More significantly, the story of Benjamin's social and sexual awakening has retained little of its wry poignancy. Johnson, who also directed the play, apparently decided that the quirks and shades of gray that made the characters in The Graduate hip, funny and moving would not be accessible on stage. What he has given us is essentially a morality tale — one that ultimately focuses less on Benjamin than on his love interest, Elaine Robinson, an insecure young woman who must be rescued from her selfish, oppressive parents.

Ironically, the only full-blooded performances are those given by the actors cast as the almost-cartoonish villains. As Mrs. Robinson, the troubled alcoholic who seduces Benjamin and tries to destroy his relationship with her daughter, Kathleen Turner wisely avoids emulating Anne Bancroft's cool, sly screen presence, which would have been swallowed whole in this production. Turner's Robinson is formidably, delightfully vampy, but she is also haunted, and the regret that consumes her becomes more palpable and profound as the show progresses. Victor Slezak is similarly effective as her callous husband, who takes out his frustrations on his wife.

As the younger couple, Jason Biggs and Alicia Silverstone are intermittently endearing, but neither is polished nor confident enough to transcend the limitations placed on them. Biggs, who starred in the American Pie movies, is pretty much a one-note stage actor. His Benjamin is all nervous energy, with none of the deft dryness that Dustin Hoffman brought to the role. Silverstone also seems drained of the intelligence and charm she has shown on screen; even her wholesome attractiveness is diminished by this Elaine's whining, whimpering demeanor.

Clearly, it takes more than a fondly remembered tale and a few snippets of Paul Simon's music to make a compelling play. Mrs. Robinson should have stayed sitting on her sofa this time around.

USA Today

Variety: "The Graduate"

Considering that it re-creates one of the most famous seduction scenes in film history, Terry Johnson's stage adaptation of "The Graduate," now on Broadway after a long and successful run in the West End, is remarkably low on charm. It's lacking in a few other things you might recall from the 1967 picture, too. It's not witty or moving or smart or sophisticated, for instance. Indeed, this workmanlike slog through an iconic story is not much of anything -- other than a hit, of course.

On the strength of affection inherited from the movie, and with an assist by a few stars of varying degrees of luster, the production is already selling well enough to start marketing ultra-high-end tickets, at $250 a pop. Downbeat reviews aren't likely to cause too much of a dent in the B.O., either. As with the season's other marketing triumph of dubious artistic merit, "Mamma Mia!," auds are likely to register their reservations only after they've satisfied their curiosity.

Johnson's adaptation, which draws on both the screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry and the novel by Charles Webb, dutifully re-creates the most famous exchanges from the movie (one half-expects the audience to chime in, "Rocky Horror"-style, when young Benjamin Braddock is given that infamous single word of advice). But it is drearily explicit where the movie was suggestive, spelling out things Mike Nichols' direction more slyly illustrated. In the opening scene, for instance, the angst-ridden Benjamin, played by "American Pie" star Jason Biggs, explains his reluctance to join the fete celebrating his graduation by telling dad, "Those people down there are grotesque! … You are grotesque, I'm grotesque and we're all grotesque."

The advances of Mrs. Robinson actually are. Ardent fans of the movie may be surprised to note that these are somewhat implausibly initiated in this opening scene, in Benjamin's bedroom and while the party is in full swing downstairs. It's here that Kathleen Turner famously -- albeit briefly -- disrobes, revealing a figure that's in rather better shape than her acting, I'm afraid.

As the predatory Mrs. R., Turner seems content to perform an exercise in self-parody. Moving with a vaguely masculine swagger, her sandpapery contralto issuing from a mouth permanently set in a grim, disgusted moue, Turner's Mrs. Robinson is not remotely alluring -- or for that matter human. In fact she's rather frightening -- Nurse Ratched in a cocktail dress -- making Benjamin's capitulation to her overtures seem less a sign of emotional confusion and need and more an indication of a particular sexual predilection.

Not that there are many sparks flying between the two. It's hard to resist the observation that the likable Biggs shared more real chemistry with that famous pie than he does with either Turner or Alicia Silverstone, the "Clueless" star making her Broadway debut as the Robinsons' daughter, Elaine.

Biggs wisely doesn't attempt to re-create that unforgettable, dazed inarticulacy of Dustin Hoffman's star-making turn in the picture. He's more like a diffident young Woody Allen -- albeit one onto whom Brad Pitt's body has been mysteriously grafted. The performance is physically a very funny one, and Biggs is at his best in the farcical scene in which Benjamin and Mrs. R. repair to a hotel room to consummate their peculiar relationship.

But in Johnson's reductive dramatization, Benjamin comes across not as a young man of passionate if inchoate idealism rebelling against the soul-killing conventions of bourgeois culture, but as an idle brat who just can't be bothered to join the dreary old rat race. ("My life is bullshit" is about as introspective as he gets, and he later dismisses the rather wide subjects of "politics and history and art" as "that crap"). Given glib material, Biggs is unable to suggest the tortured inner life that Hoffman did with such beautiful economy.

More is less when it comes to the character of Elaine, too. She's much more loquacious onstage than in the picture, but, as with Benjamin, also far shallower. She can get mildly worked up about such diverse topics as the Mona Lisa and civil rights, yes, but in a cutely superficial way that's not much alleviated by Silverstone's cutely superficial performance. (And the mother-daughter drunk scene near the end of the first act must be one of the least funny in stage history.)

The whole production seems content to shellac a shiny plastic surface over a story that was both lighter on its feet and vastly deeper in its emotional resonance on film. Rob Howell's stylish set, handsomely lit by Hugh Vanstone, surrounds the playing space with three walls of white slatted doors, but the show itself doesn't attempt to open any new windows on its material. (It even recycles some of the famous Paul Simon soundtrack, albeit in bizarre bits that suggest some kind of legal wrangling, and fills in the gaps with other hits of the era from the Beach Boys and the Mamas & the Papas.)

The play's flat conclusion finds Benjamin and Elaine in bed, newly married, chattering cutely about Cheerios. This puerile finale is particularly deflating given the knockout ending of Nichols' picture, surely one of cinema's most beautifully rendered. Of course, Nichols' subtle, open-ended last shots, in which we see the elation of their flight from the church slowly fade on Benjamin and Elaine's faces as they confront the daunting question marks of the future, probably wouldn't make it in Hollywood today either. At the movies, as at the theater, entertainment only seem to get more juvenile with each passing season. What can you do?

Pass the Cheerios, I guess.


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