Kathleen Turner takes her kit off, as the British so charmingly put it, in writer-director Terry Johnson’s theater version of “The Graduate,” and London hasn’t got itself into such a lather since Nicole Kidman left town. Does Turner’s West End debut warrant all the fuss? Well, that fulsome body certainly does, and as far as Johnson’s play allows her — which sometimes isn’t very far at all — her performance does, too. Don’t expect to find Anne Bancroft’s movingly desolate film seductress in a stage adaptation that ultimately turns on this fellatio-loving Mrs. Robinson no less forcefully than do Benjamin and Elaine. “You are a bitch,” Matthew Rhys’ 21-year-old boy toy challenges her in an ending that upends in every way the finale well-remembered from the 1967 film. And so this Mrs. Robinson very much is, even if — and not for the first time — it’s the vixen of the piece who usurps proceedings.
Turner seemed notably humorless in her last Broadway outing in “Indiscretions” in 1995, so it’s something of a relief to report that she has rediscovered the crack timing, as well as the sensuality, that seemed to have deserted her. “Is there an ashtray in here?” she asks early on in Benjamin’s bedroom, making clear that the answer doesn’t matter, since her Mrs. Robinson is lighting up no matter what.
Later, sequestered away with Benjamin in a hotel room, she stops the show with a simple request for a hanger from which much comic business dutifully ensues. There may be not a trace of poignancy or emotional resonance to Johnson’s determinedly broad re-reading of the material (Britain-based Charles Webb’s source novel included), but with Turner in full swaggering form, at least some theatergoers may be too sweaty to care.
I’m not one who thinks “The Graduate” had to remain forever confined to film: “La Cage Aux Folles,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Lion King” (all of them, admittedly, stage musicals, a genre indeed previously tested for “The Graduate”) all showed in varying ways the virtues — and occasional follies — of transposing disciplines. Rather more disconcerting is the apparent inability of the gifted Johnson — a writer whose “Cleo Camping Emmanuelle and Dick” possessed something of the same satiric pathos as “The Graduate” onscreen — to shape such era-defining material into anything meaningful for our anti-rebellious age.
Seen now, Mike Nichols’ movie was very clearly the “American Beauty” of its day, with Dustin Hoffman’s deadpan performance a clear progenitor of Kevin Spacey’s irony-drenched delivery in the recent Oscar-winner. Co-star Bancroft, in turn, is the Annette Bening character as she might have been before her nervous collapse, an acknowledged alcoholic who finds a sexual partner (if never a soulmate) in the similarly lost and confused young Benjamin.
Johnson’s play preserves the essential triangle of a plot that — in theatrical terms, at least — amounts to a series of duologues: Benjamin with Mrs. Robinson, Mrs. Robinson with Elaine, Elaine with Benjamin. But what perspective does Johnson intend us to take on affairs that suggest a sex romp one minute (that’s “a helluva thing,” says Mrs. Robinson, staring at Benjamin’s underwear; the mutual beneath-the-sheets oral attention coming later), some weirdly distorted parable about simplicity the next? “Simple people” is Benjamin’s goal in a scenario that finds him sharing a box of Cheerio’s on the bed with Elaine at the end.
At the same time, it’s hard to think of Reilly’s whiny and squeakily voiced Elaine as any paragon of purity, especially once she starts asking “where does love go?” and other lines that themselves sound like song cues — and not for Simon and Garfunkel, whom the play’s aural landscape (which includes Harry Nilsson and the Beach Boys) saves until the end.
Consistency isn’t this “Graduate’s” strong suit, excepting a set from Rob Howell that places a bed in various locations within a shifting two-tiered design of swinging doors. Though Rhys — a 25-year-old Welshman — makes a pleasant enough (if notably un-Jewish) Benjamin, it’s impossible to reconcile his search for truth ca. 1963 with the woman-hater who at one point embarks upon a mini-discourse on “queers” that, thankfully, is quashed.
As for Elaine, Johnson is right to want to upgrade the role beyond the long-maned ingenue Katharine Ross cut in the film. But a freshly written drunk scene between mother and daughter creates more problems than it solves (at times , we seem to be getting “Mommie Dearest,” not “The Graduate”), and it’s simply inconceivable that Benjamin would risk all for a baby-loving drudge who invokes Mona Lisa and Robert Frost only to deride music, art and politics as “all that crap.” What side of the cultural bed is she on?
Thankfully, Turner struts her stuff as if she, at least, were in control, that voice more than ever merging Lauren Bacall with Mercedes McCambridge in “The Exorcist.” Johnson radically alters the meaning of the film (I haven’t read the novel) by bringing Benjamin and Elaine together under Mrs. Robinson’s calculating, watchful eye. Told that he’ll ruin Elaine’s life, Benjamin wonders how. Mrs. Robinson’s ace reply: “Being in it, Benjamin.” At such moments, one can’t help feeling that this Benjamin and Elaine fully deserve each other, and that it was Mrs. Robinson’s wisest-ever decision to remain the odd woman out.