'The Graduate': Theater Review

Courtesy of Ed Krieger
Nick Tag and Melanie Griffith in 'The Graduate'
Less funny, less smart and 60 isn't quite the new 40.

Melanie Griffith bares a lot in the fatally flawed Laguna Playhouse production of the play based on Mike Nichols' iconic 1967 film with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft.

When Anne Bancroft agreed to play the smart and salacious Mrs. Robinson in 1967's The Graduate, she was a 36-year-old playing 40. When Kathleen Turner took on the role for the London premiere of this play based on the movie and its source novel in 2000, she was 46. In the new production at Laguna Playhouse, Melanie Griffith is 60.

A full generation gap is essential to this May-December affair, that divide critical to establishing the tone of the piece. But even though age onstage tends to be far more elastic than onscreen, this pairing of newcomer Nick Tag as Benjamin Braddock and Griffith as Mrs. Robinson makes the gulf uncomfortably wide. Of course, if the gender roles were flipped, few would bat an eyelash about a 60-year-old man in a sexual relationship with a woman in her early 20s. This is a period piece, after all. But that kind of imbalance has been at the heart of much careful reconsideration of sexual politics lately, and whether audiences are ready for a neat reversal is another matter.

Unfortunately, the problematic casting of Griffith is just one of the issues here. Adapting Calder Willingham and Buck Henry's screenplay based on Charles Webb's novel, playwright Terry Johnson conflates the movie's best dialogue scenes into a checklist, and director Michael Matthews rustles his cast through the material at a pace that suggests they've all got better things to do.

The plot remains relatively unchanged — a boiled-down version of what audiences remember from the film. But under Matthews' oblivious eye, it assiduously sidesteps laughs and drama, rushing through hilarious passages with little attention paid to either timing or delivery, and making light of the story's most impactful scenes.

Having graduated from college at the top of his class, Benjamin is frozen in time, not sure of what he wants, though quite sure of what he doesn't want — the trappings of a conventional middle-class life. It's a dilemma that profoundly captures the zeitgeist of the 1960s, when the generation gap was at its widest and anti-establishment voices at their loudest.

Benjamin begins a soulless affair with Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father's business partner, wiling the summer hours away in a pool by day and holed up in a hotel at night. The arrival of the Robinsons' daughter Elaine (Martha Magruder) is a catalyst that provides Benjamin powerful motivation to get out of the pool and out of Mrs. Robinson's bed.

If you love the movie, then keep clear of the play, where most memorable moments have been drained of life, such as the seduction, in which Mrs. Robinson inhales her cigarette and must hold her breath through a surprise kiss from Benjamin before she can exhale. Here, the moment plays as incidental. The date-gone-wrong in which Elaine is humiliated by a stripper in a men's club, a poignant and pivotal scene, is played for laughs. The dramatic highpoint in which Elaine learns of the affair between Benjamin and her mother is played as farce. And in the end, Elaine's perception of Benjamin shifts from seeing him as her mother's rapist to a potential husband over the course of a few throwaway lines. The transition is so abbreviated it becomes ridiculous.

In a slight variation from the movie, Elaine is more willingly abducted from her own wedding ceremony, with her mother acquiescing. In the end, the young couple lands in a hotel room eating Cheerios because she mentioned her preference for the breakfast cereal earlier. And Cheerios are like regular people, or something.

As Benjamin, Tag wisely avoids impersonating Dustin Hoffman, conjuring naive sweetness and brash determination when pushed. Magruder conveys warmth and sensitivity despite the illogical emotional convolutions inherent in the role of Elaine, who is more fleshed out in the play, though still objectified. Suburban archetypes played by Richard Burgi and Valerie Perri as Benjamin's parents are mirror images of Geoffrey Lower's Mr. Robinson.

For the first half of the play, the irresistible object is Mrs. Robinson, whose essential qualities are sexy, smart and ultimately tragic, some of which are missing in Griffith's monotone interpretation. A detached delivery characterizes her work here, though maybe a bit too detached, leaving her breezing through lines as if late for an appointment.

A bright spot is Matthews' work with his ensemble, a team of hippies changing scenic designer Stephen Gifford's era-appropriate sets to classic tunes, including, of course, Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson." And Kate Berg's costumes reflect the essential nature of the characters.

A fresh approach to The Graduate is admirable and an overhaul can be good — even of a classic. But, unfortunately, this new production's broad rom-com style undermines the hilarity of simply playing it straight.

Venue: Laguna Playhouse, Laguna Beach, California
Cast: Melanie Griffith, Nick Tag, Richard Burgi, Gregory Butler, Joey Fabrizi, Taylor Rene LaBarbera, Geoffrey Lower, Martha Magruder, John Massey, Valerie Perri, Jordan Barrie, Maggie Dorfman, Blake Jensen, Ryann Kristensen, Madi Lang-Ree, Lizzy Mosher
Director: Michael Matthews
Playwright: Terry Johnson, adapted from screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry from a book by Charles Webb
Set designer: Stephen Gifford
Costume designer: Kate Berg
Lighting designer: Tim Swiss
Sound designer: Mike Ritchey
Presented by Laguna Playhouse