No matter how intriguing the Benjamin-Mrs. Robinson relationship may be, it’s impossible to get around the fact that their comings and goings require theatricality, nervousness and nuance. When neither Jerry Hall nor Rider Strong bring those qualities to “The Graduate,” the staging plays as little more than a limp transfer to the stage from the film screen. Script shows no concern about the deepening of the characters or their relationships — or, God forbid, pushing the story in a direction that says more about the characters than the time (1963) they lived in.
The actors apparently are driven by ragged instincts rather than direction. And while Hall delivers a decent portrayal of the middle-aged seductress in the first act, as resignation sets in, so, too, does her Texas drawl. That could be a first: As a characterization heads south, the character’s voice follows.
Strong (“Cabin Fever”) reduces Benjamin Braddock to a whining and screaming malcontent. Ambivalence, which Dustin Hoffman employed so well in the 1967 film, is turned to anger in Strong’s portrayal, and his sheer unpleasantness should have audiences rooting for him to lie in the bed he made rather than escape with new possibilities.
What was once an examination of middle-class mores and a changing America has turned trite, obvious and even bland. Terry Johnson’s adaptation of the Charles Webb novel and the screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry hits the classic lines of the film — “plastics,” “art” — and, of course, the nude scene, but the production has a Cliffs Notes quality; supporting characters rush in, usually to express disdain, but never to enhance the milieu. Cutting exposition is obviously thought out; the audience knows these characters and where they’re going — get on with the action.
Setups of the characters abound in the script, and no matter who plays Mrs. Robinson, we know she’s an alcoholic, unsatisfied, was pregnant when married and has a disdain for her daughter and husband. Hall adds a layer of cool, a distancing of herself that she turns on and off. That reserve comes back to haunt her when she flashes signs of actual deep feelings; one has to wonder where they’re coming from.
Devon Sorvari, who adds a bubbly schoolgirl air to Elaine, suggesting more ’50s than ’60s, becomes the conduit for Benjamin to escape his parents’ lifestyle. She lists reason after reason why she’s not right for him, and as accurate as she is, Benjamin will have none of it. That they end up together reduces “The Graduate” to a “boy gets girl” play — a disappointment considering the intensity and pointedness of its source material.
As the play ends, with Benjamin and Elaine in a hotel room sharing kids’ cereal, there’s a sense that their relationship from that point forward might be worthy of exploration. Then again, “The Graduate 2” has about as good a chance of existing as a sequel to “Easy Rider.”
Rob Howell’s set of closet doors takes a little getting used to, but it becomes increasingly utilitarian. Sound was off on opening night as some stage movement — the opening of a purse, for example — was amplified louder than voices.