Russ Hunt's Reviews

The Graduate
adapted by Terry Johnson from the movie script by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry,
and the novel by Charles Webb

Theatre New Brunswick
The Playhouse, 15-18 March 2007

One of the iconic moments of cinema, for those who were about then just learning to call it that, rather than just "the movies," occurred near the beginning of the Mike Nichols film of The Graduate when Mr. Robinson portentously asked to say a word to the new graduate. "Just one word," he said. "Plastics." It was up there with Jack Nicholson trying to get a side order of toast in Five Easy Pieces, or maybe even with Rick explaining that he'd come to Casablanca "for the waters," and then dismissively admitting that he "was misinformed." It was among the cinematic moments people shared, often without quite understanding what it was that resonated so strongly in the culture.

What that particular line resonated with, of course, was the free-floating revulsion of the baby boomers with the plastic culture of their parents. They'd read The Organization Man, and The Lonely Crowd, and they'd heard Pete Seeger or Malvina Reynolds sing about the suburbs full of houses "all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same." It's arguable, I think, that that film was one of the most important early signs of the utter domination of North American culture by that generation, born just after World War II and beginning to graduate just as Benjamin was. The power of the film depended partly on Mike Nichols' brilliant direction, but at least as much on the idea itself. Benjamin Braddock, the alienated and lost and self-pitying young man graduating from college into a world in which, as Malvina Reynolds wrote, "they go to the university and they all get put in boxes and they all come out the same," and the venal, self-satisfied, smug world of adults pretending everything's okay when we all know no marriages are happy and no lives are fulfilling, that the white picket fence backyard was an empty pretense. And of course the story itself, especially the shocking relation between the young man and his father's best friend's wife (and then the twist, with the young man falling for his lover's daughter), appealed to a generation appalled by the hypocrisy of the fifties, and the fact that nobody talked about what was really going on behind the scenes in the Cleaver house, or whether Father really did Know Best. "Most of all," as the Paul Simon song which became the film's most lasting memory had it, "you've got to hide it from the kids."

All this resonance covered up, for those of us who lived through the way the film exploded on the scene in 1967, the fact that the script didn't really earn the power the film undeniably had. Jerked back and forth by the one-liners, the characters actually didn't add up to much, weren't particularly interesting, and had only the flimsiest sheen of reality. Had it not been for amazing performances by Dustin Hoffman, Katharine Ross, and (especially) Anne Bancroft, we might have noticed that the characters were inconsistent, that the sparks between Benjamin and Elaine weren't there in the script, that our complicated ambivalence about the predatory but wounded Mrs. Robinson was earned by the crumpled, aging defeat on Anne Bancroft's face at the end, and by the brilliant Simon and Garfunkle score, rather than by anything much that Calder Willingham and Buck Henry had built into the script.

When, five or six years ago, the stage version adapted by Terry Johnson opened in London, I wondered whether in fact something had been found in the original script (or possibly in the novel from which it, in turn, had been adapted) that had potential for becoming a genuinely theatrical piece, or whether it was simply an attempt to put bums in seats by offering theatregoers some instant nostalgia. When I heard that Mrs. Robinson was being played by Kathleen Turner, and that the hype was all about her nude scene, the case creaked shut for me.

So when the play appeared -- identified by its title; as I remember it was the only title that appeared in the list -- in the survey conducted by Theatre New Brunswick's now-you-see-him-now-you-don't ex-artistic director, Claude Giroux, who promised to give theatre audiences in New Brunswick exactly what they wanted, I cringed. Did we really want a recreation of a movie with the additions of a nude scene, a drunk scene, and a clunky denouement? Apparently so; we voted for it, and TNB has now given it to us. As I said at the time, running a poll is not a way to decide on a theatre season -- especially if the poll is tilted to start with. And even more especially if it turns out that it's your whole, entire season.

To mount the play, Leigh Rivenbark and the rest of the TNB crew certainly gave it their all, and reminded us what a professional theatre company can achieve technically, calling in the best to do it right. Patrick Clark as set designer gave us exactly what's required: a single elegant set, adapted to the play's eight or ten different locations, remaining obviously the same backdrop but changed by furnishings to be Ben's room, a hotel room, a bar. It was even composed of louvered panels, echoing the movie's original classic poster. Mike Doherty's sound design, timed and shaped to bridge scenes and create an ambiance, insistently but unobtrusively recreated the feel of that movie (mostly with appropriate snatches here and there of Simon and Garfunkle, some from Simon's later work). Interestingly, Chris Saad's subtle lighting, combined with the fact that in the openings behind Clark's set there's nothing at all -- just blackness -- worked nicely to remind us that this isn't actually the movie: that it's all a stage production. It's not California out there (as it always, insistently, was in the film): it's nowhere.

This, indeed, was the challenge of the production, which was trapped between two conflicting aims. On the one hand, it was clearly intended to recreate the experience of the film (tellingly, the advertising was a direct imitation of the classic poster which had advertised the film in 1967). On the other hand, the company just as obviously wanted to find a way to help us relate to it as a theatrical performance: on a stage, with actors physically present and deliberately and explicitly artificial sets. We were to experience a company, telling us a story. The structure of the script, however, remains appropriate to realistic film rather than artificial stage, and nothing in it relates very well to the theatrical conventions which had us watching one corner of the stage lit as a phone booth, or the psychiatrist's office being four beanbag chairs in front of the dropped front scrim, or a seedy night club being represented by one opening in the back wall screened by a bead curtain with a tiny stage projecting from it. Such things are, of course, perfectly reasonable theatrical conventions, but seem strange when the dialogue and structure of the story are suited to the realism of film or television.

The acting company, however, put on a show that had the opening night audience laughing regularly, and engaged consistently. Kyle MacDougall gave us a wonderfully comic Benjamin, athletically leaping about in surprise and anguish and excitement; Stephanie McNamara's Mrs. Robinson was appropriately sardonic, contemptuous, and hard-edged, never entirely sober: strongly reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor's Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Ben's father, as played by Mike Peterson, was, for a moment, surprisingly sympathetic as he realizes that Ben's quixotic decision to run away might be yet another way in which he could be conventionally proud of his son. His clowning struggle with a beanbag chair in a psychiatrist's office was a wonderful piece of comic business, and got a deserved ovation from the opening night audience (who, like me, ignored the fact that it was simply a schtick, unconnected with the scene or the play or the character). Martha Farrell's Elaine was just as her mother describes her: "She inherited her father's dreary diligence and that enduring dullness. She's cute but shallow, Benjamin. Beneath the wrapping, believe me, there is no Elaine." The lack of spark between Elaine and Benjamin seemed a way of saying that Benjamin's passion for her was yet another way in which what he wants is always fantasy, like his claim that he wants to run off and live with "simple people, simple honest people that can't even read or write their own name."

Mostly, the production was professional and polished, entertaining and appropriately funny. Oddly, it seemed even comfortably familiar: if in 1967 we might have been shocked by the plot or the language, we're all now perfectly comfortable with this sort of suburban domestic horror show, because TV programs like Desperate Housewives and The OC and their ilk have made it as common now as Mrs. Cleaver in her apron greeting Ward after a hard day at the office was in 1960. There were some scenes which didn't work at all -- like the oddly empty one in which Benjamin takes Elaine to a sleazy bar to humiliate her, and after the climax when Benjamin pulls the plug on the jukebox to abort the stripper's act (and no one reacts), the rest of the sleazy bar just somehow ceases to exist while Elaine and Benjamin have a quiet chat. Or the strangely pointless scene in which Elaine and her mother get drunk together after Elaine has discovered what's been going on. But there were more where the comic timing was tight and the dialogue was funny, and it seemed from the standing ovation at the end that the audience had, for the most part, got what they came for.

Whether what they came for will sustain a theatre company over the long haul, however, is another question. It may well be that the choice of this play for this season was one that was pretty difficult to change, since it was apparently the runaway winner of Giroux's survey of what the Fredericton audience wanted. It seems that Theatre New Brunswick has turned a very difficult financial corner, and there is some hope that there will be some semblance of a full season next year. One can hope that they'll turn an artistic corner, too, and give us what they want to do, and even what they have to do as professionals, rather than asking us what we want and guaranteeing to give it to us. I hope they'll find a way to surprise us with a gift we didn't know we wanted.

We'll find out in April, when next year's season is announced.

NOTE: for the first few hours this review was up, it said that the actress who played Mrs. Robinson in London was the same as Katharine Ross, who played Elaine in the film.  It took almost no time for Walter Learning to set me straight.  Thanks, Walter.

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