A lot of eager theatergoers are pulling out the plastic to secure tickets for the stage adaptation of “The Graduate,” judging from its hit status in London, sold-out run at Baltimore’s Mechanic Theater and strong advance sales in Toronto, Boston and New York. It’s easy to understand why, considering the source material’s iconic status and the play’s marquee-topping Kathleen Turner, Jason Biggs and Alicia Silverstone. Turner’s brief nude scene hasn’t hurt ticket sales either. The excitement is less easy to understand when you consider the show itself. Although several scenes have been added in an attempt to flesh out the source novel and film for stage purposes, more turns out to be less here. This “Graduate” doesn’t exactly flunk, but it is little more than a star vehicle with a superficial connection to the influential film’s generation-gap morality tale. Sure, it’s fun watching this production’s middle-aged star and two teen movie stars replicate the film’s amorous complications, but that appeal only goes so far when the characterizations in Terry Johnson’s script are as thin as, well, a credit card.
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Turner, who has played her share of characters inspired by ’40s film noir femmes fatale, is holding up just fine now that she’s well into her 40s. To get to the most titillating question first, yes, she’s totally nude for a few seconds in a discreetly lit scene, and yes, she still seems capable of generating plenty of body heat as the notorious Mrs. Robinson.
Turner vamps big-time with this role, approaching it as if she were still doing her one-woman “Tallulah.” That’s fine when she’s putting the moves on Benjamin, but otherwise problematic. There should be a needy-verging-on-pathetic quality to the predatory, alcoholic Mrs. Robinson. But Turner swaggers with such self-confidence that she comes on not like an adulterous wife but an invading army.
As Benjamin Braddock, Biggs has the naive-young-man routine down pat. The problem is that his patter has a slick, hyperarticulate quality at odds with the anxiety-ridden stop-and-go qualities Dustin Hoffman brought to his career-making movie role. As Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine, with whom poor Benjamin also becomes romantically involved, Alicia Silverstone is sweet — and that’s about it — in what admittedly is a one-dimensional role.
The other roles never extend beyond comic caricatures. Murphy Guyer and Kate Skinner as Mr. and Mrs. Braddock, and Victor Slezak as Mr. Robinson are effective within the scripted limitations. Other very fleeting roles are filled by Robert Emmet Lunney, John Hillner, Susan Cella, Judson Pearce Morgan and Kelly Overton.
Directing his own adaptation, Johnson has difficulty animating the story. The succession of short scenes never gains enough momentum but instead clumsily sputters ahead. Although it’s easy to follow the mechanics of the plot, there’s not much beyond those major plot points to follow.
Equally disappointing are the sets and costumes by Rob Howell. Initially, it seems like a clever design move to have the domestic set’s walls consist entirely of a bank of louvered doors rising up. This has its advantages in terms of the story’s bedroom farce aspect. But it’s also indicative of a production whose set, costumes, dialogue and music make only passing reference to the ’60s setting.
It’s sometimes hard to even see a wall of doors, however, because Hugh Vanstone’s dim lighting, while suitable for seduction scenes, tends to be too dark throughout. Audiences deserve to see the stars, at least when Turner and company are fully clothed.