Jason Biggs in The Graduate(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Jason Biggs in The Graduate
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
When Mike Nichols made the landmark 1967 movie The Graduate, he was amazed at the audience response to the film. "We had two previews," Nichols told Joseph Gelmis in an interview, "and the first reaction of the audience astonished us all. I hadn't thought of it as either that funny or that rousing. I was very unnerved when they began to make noises and cheer at the end." Ironically, the new Broadway production of The Graduate is actually much closer to Nichols' original expectation: it's not that funny or that rousing. In fact, it's quite a disappointment.

Most of the first act sticks pretty close to the film. The major difference is one of tone; the show is clearly written and directed to be funnier and lighter than its cinematic predecessor. To that end, Kathleen Turner as Mrs. Robinson snaps off a lot of comic one-liners. Always a better comedian than a dramatic actress, Turner dominates the early proceedings with her dry, acerbic delivery. Unfortunately, the attitude she strikes remains essentially the same throughout the play, so that her performance comes across as a one-dimensional pose. But you have to applaud her nude scene and later topless romps: Any actress who bares all after having passed the peak of her babedom makes a strong, positive statement about the desirability of realistic beauty. (And this actress still looks great.)

Of course, Turner's nudity is selling tickets. That's nice for the producers, but they also have a script that fails to clothe its scenes with credibility. Though the play is peppered with famous lines from the movie, that's not enough to carry the evening. You can only go so far with the movie's single most famous word, "Plastics." Near the end of the first act, this stage adaptation suddenly veers from being a mildly engaging, if thin, version of The Graduate and becomes a caricature of the beloved movie. Mrs. Robinson and Elaine (Mrs. R's daughter, played as an insipid dolt by Alicia Silverstone) get drunk together after the kid learns of the affair between her mother and our hero, Benjamin (Jason Biggs). This scene changes the entire dynamic of the plot, creating a faux comic relationship between mother and daughter. (Mrs. Robinson gets laughs by demanding that Elaine not vomit on the rug; get the picture?) From this point on, we can no longer buy into their relationship.

There are even greater problems at hand. Jason Biggs is an appealing actor who starts out with impossible shoes (and flippers) to fill. Playing the role that made Dustin Hoffman a star, Biggs is first seen in a wetsuit which calls to mind a similar scene in the movie. As the play progresses, his Ben evolves from an endearing if spoiled and alienated rich kid into an emotional bully, becoming downright unlikeable in the second act. Unlike Hoffman, he does not display the necessary ingratiating charm to carry off his quest for Elaine. Worse, much of the second act is simply a series of scenes in which one person after another walks through the door into Ben's room in Berkeley. First, it's Elaine; then, it's Elaine's father; then, it's Ben's father. These static, unimaginatively staged scenes are theatrical death, and they clearly suggest that there was really no reason to turn the movie into a theater piece.

Kathleen Turner in The Graduate(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Kathleen Turner in The Graduate
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
In fact, some of the least effective sequences in the play are those which were so thrilling in the movie. Remember Dustin Hoffman pounding on the second-story glass wall of the church, screaming "Elaine!" as he tries to stop the wedding of his beloved down below? And do you remember him swinging a huge crucifix to keep everyone away as he and Elaine (after her marriage to the other guy) made their mutual escape together? That was unforgettable filmmaking. But Terry Johnson, the play's adapter and director, has found no theatrical equivalents for these scenes. Oh, there's a lame confrontation in the church, but no impassioned cry for Elaine and no crucifix swinging. In a move that is sure to alienate lovers of the film's wonderfully dark finale, where we clearly see that Benjamin and Elaine have no idea what to say to each other, the play suggests a far warmer and upbeat ending. Well, we were not cheering at the curtain; what you heard from us were "The Sounds of Silence."

The mention of that song reminds us to tell you that only the faintest echoes of the Simon & Garfunkel songs which are so integral to the movie are heard here. Instead, we get bits of 1960s tunes by the Beach Boys and other nostalgic musical bric-a-brac. And speaking of bric-a-brac, Rob Howell's sets are simultaneously boring and distracting, consisting of floor-to-ceiling closets that only occasionally turn into something clever (as when one corner of the set is transformed into the revolving doors of a hotel). Overall, this is one of those nights in the theater that make you wish you were at the movies.