Plastics," Mr. Robinson's one word of post-grad advice to the young, disillusioned Benjamin Braddock still earns a knowing chuckle. Anne Bancroft's Mrs. Robinson is still a sexy, stomach-turning monster of selfishness and a drunken victim of Eisenhower-era gender rules. Dustin Hoffman's slapstick identity crisis is still definitive, and The Graduate's hauntingly harmonized soundtrack remains as cloying as it is irresistible.
But for all of its well-made parts and iconic status, the past 39 years haven't been particularly kind to director Mike Nichols' quirky ode to coming of age in the era of Vietnam and civil rights. In 1967, The Graduate's vaguely misogynistic message was as simple as it was vulgar: When you don't know what else to do, fuck your parents. Today, this staple of Saturday-afternoon programing is a symbol of tragic baby-boomer vanities and the infinite adaptability of the status quo. Poor Ben Braddock is such a terribly ineffective rebel he violently abducts the girl his parents wanted him to marry in the first place. How long can it be before he hijacks their values and grows his muddied convictions into full-fledged moral ambiguity?
The recent stage adaptation of Charles Webb's novel The Graduate is no match for Nichols' film. Ben doesn't drag his beloved Elaine away from the altar, wildly brandishing a crucifix. There's no way to effectively re-create the claustrophobic final shot of Hoffman and Katharine Ross on a dirty bus to God-knows-where without a thing in the world to talk about. And although the play begins just like the movie -- with Ben dressed in a full wetsuit -- it's impossible to isolate the audience behind the diver's mask and deafen them with the sound of heavy, mechanically assisted breathing.
Still, Playhouse on the Square rises to the challenge of reinventing a cultural icon, and their production of The Graduate, buoyed by an elegant, no-nonsense set design by Jackie Nichols, is only superficially nostalgic. The play's successes can be chalked up to the strength of the storytelling and several wonderful performances. Its failures are few but worth mentioning.
Too much self-awareness can kill a period piece. For the most part, POTS visiting director Ken Zimmerman lets his characters live in the comfortable environs of 1960s suburbia without too much editorial comment. But then the bean-bag chairs come out, and the whole Braddock family goes into a 1970s sitcom take on group therapy, including a noncertified, nonjudgmental therapist who sits in the lotus position and chants. The scene -- one of the play's few detours from the film -- is superfluous and feels like it was written for a musical. It threatens to wreck everything that's right and good about the production.
Speaking of musicals, Megan Bowers' Elaine always seems like she's about to burst into song, and her overly energized, consistently offbeat performance (a slightly less liberated version of Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday) seems to belong in another play. But for being outlandishly large (of character, not person) Bowers is delicious and quickly becomes the heart of the play.
Mark Mozingo's Benjamin is more Matthew Broderick than Dustin Hoffman, and his energetic approach to the role is disarmingly sympathetic. He's a perfect foil for the spidery Mrs. Robinson, although visiting artist Carmen Rae Myers never makes the most of it. Her Mrs. Robinson is full of bitter lethargy but short on desperation, and she never quite seems like a match for the nimble-minded Mozingo.
Michael Gravois is mature and grounded as the emasculated Mr. Robinson, and Jonathon Lamer makes Mr. Braddock into a reasonable, likable man, who wants to live vicariously through his son. Irene Crist's bubble-headed Mrs. Braddock is a cartoonish June Cleaver minus the occasional bit of good advice.
Jackie Nichols' scenic design is stark white and as sanitary as an operating room. Three walls of stacked louvered doors suggest a sprawling farce, and that visual choice resonates well with Zimmerman's lively interpretation of the story. As The Graduate's characters become more and more grotesque and foreign to one another, the play quickly descends into a door-slamming, ax-swinging sex farce, and it's hard to imagine that this quirky rewrite of Oedipus and Romeo and Juliet could have ever been the definitive coming-of-age story for a generation that -- if you believe the hype -- dared to be different. It just seems like a charming little comedy about how we turn into our parents whether we want to or not.
Playhouse on the Square
Through February 26th