The phenomenon of cross-genre, dramatic adaptation has been a mixed blessing to the world of theater. Hairspray is one of a few exceptions that proved the rule: turning a successful, brilliantly crafted film into an equally worthy stage production is not easy. They ruined Tommy, and a talkin'-'bout-my generation of rock purists will never forgive them.
Now, more than 30 years after its cinematic release to landmark reviews-and instant, meet-the-new-boss social resonance with then-burgeoning Baby Boomers-the film version of The Graduate matriculates to a stage production that is dubiously subtitled The Graduate: The Broadway Comedy.
The cliché is that, generally, the movie is never as good as the book. But this is a lot like saying the moon is not as good as the sun: it's silly to compare. Besides, it doesn't mean the moon can't have charms of her own. So best not to focus solely on the movie version of The Graduate. The merits of the Broadway interpretation of the 1963 novel by Charles Webb are considerable-but so are the flaws. So it's up to the details, as this play commands, to show us heaven.
Adapted for the stage by Terry Nichols, directed by Peter Lawrence and starring ringer Jerry Hall as the infamous Mrs. Robinson, this Graduate reaches for stars in a parallel, distinctly different universe-one far less challenging than the 1967 film starring Dustin Hoffman.
Having said that, some celluloid brilliance can reanimate in other forms. The genius casting and pitch-perfect performance of Hall as Mrs. Robinson-seductress, semi-Oedipal fixation and psychosexual foil to The Graduate's young anti-hero, Ben-is the production's saving grace. Only occasionally tripped by dud scenes that played like bad Saturday Night Live sketches, the schooled stage diva made off with the show (and her clothes in one tame yet titillating nude scene) at the San Diego opening. With a sympathetic audience's support, she careened deftly from one-line keepers to sexual tension and back before the script's blemishes could sully her wicked charm.
Though consistent and talented, Rider Strong was less convincing as disillusioned Ben Braddock, whom Strong played like Malcolm in the Middle-meets-Hamlet. Instead of the troubled but luminous proto-slacker that Hoffman created, Stone's whining Gen-Y discomfort grated more than it grappled. He mimicked how the sometimes loopy stage script takes liberties-through contrived dialogue and stilted blocking-with the work's most endearing traits. Subtle double entendres and multilayered symbols were too often given a vaudevillian, rim-shot delivery. Rider's apologetic portrayal was saddled by grimace-inducing tangents and situations that forced his otherwise truthful performance to suffer.
In better but also uniquely interpreted roles were actors William Hill and Dennis Parlato-the former as Ben's Fred Flinstone-like father, the latter as Mr. Robinson. While some of the story's generation gaps have lost relevance, there was a wonderful timelessness to Parlato's reversal of Shakespearean iconography. His Sophoclean wielding of an axe (and the mention of Ben's clinched fists as a physical threat) made hilariously clear just how the ancient gallery of the stage could shine new light on The Graduate.
Far less incisive, in both character and key, was Ben's love interest, Elaine. While Mrs. Robinson symbolizes a quest for love, her daughter becomes Ben's living pun of a mother-lover. Played by Devon Sorvari, Elaine also evoked a classic-Ophelia as Legally Blonde. This true-to-the-book version of Elaine as a bubble-headed blonde savant just didn't work for more than a handful of scenes. Sorvari was hardly to blame, because the few moments her material did ring true only made Mrs. Robinson's lines about her seem like comments about the play's Achilles heel: "... naïve, unworldly and absurdly sincere."
For much of The Graduate, this wasn't an unforgivable sin. Mixed up and pissed off, The Graduate is at heart a story about the journey from drowning in a selfish, self-pitying void to finding selflessness in kindness and The Now. If nirvana is in the details, it's hard to believe we can find it in entertainment for nostalgia's sake. But it's good to keep looking, as the Broadway Graduate nearly finds it.