The week before British playwright Terry Johnson’s stage version of Charles Webb’s 1963 novella The Graduate and Buck Henry and Calder Willingham’s 1967 screenplay premiered at Laguna Playhouse, I happened to re-watch the classic movie on the IFC or Sundance Channel. I was struck by a number of things and wondered how could one translate its cinematic language to the medium of theatre, with real life movie star Melanie Griffith stepping into the role Anne Bancroft immortalized, that lecherous lush Mrs. Robinson?
After all, its helmer, Mike Nichols - who actually had previously been a theatre director whose movie debut was the 1966 adaptation of Edward Albee's Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - won the Best Director Oscar for The Graduate, which was only his second movie. And it was lensed by legendary director of photography Robert Surtees, who won three Best Cinematography Oscars, including for 1959’s Ben-Hur, and was Oscar-nommed another dozen times, including for The Graduate.
Surtees’ camerawork perfectly conveyed the film's ambiance of alienation. The use of long shots showed characters in isolation, alone, disconnected. Its subjective camera, as in the scuba diving/swimming pool scene that expresses Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman, but of course!) is emotionally drowning. How could you interpret this filmic dialect for the idiom of stage?
From the second the curtain lifted at Laguna Playhouse Johnson’s theatrical version of The Graduate as directed by veteran Michael Matthews succeeded in capturing much of the film’s vibe, communicating Ben’s (Nick Tag) sense of estrangement, anxiety and disorientation, of being lost and adrift after graduating from university.
Another important thing that occurred to me after recently viewing the film again is how wickedly droll and at times laugh out loud The Graduate is. As A.T. McKenna notes in his biography of The Graduate’s producer, Joseph E. Levine, Showman of the Screen: “one appealing factor of it is all too often overlooked - [The Graduate] is very funny.” Fortunately, Johnson’s iteration, which takes from both the novel and the movie, is likewise often hilarious and witty. So much so that this production could legitimately be described as a comedy - albeit a black comedy and a peerlessly scathing satire of postwar American affluence, materialism and mores in the 1960s.
The story remains rather risqué and downright kinky, even by today’s jaded standards: Boy meets mother of childhood friend, fucks mother - then pursues daughter. This is still pretty taboo stuff, fraught with peril, but also loads of laughter, if played right - as it is here and was onscreen.
A stellar student, despite the offer of a scholarship, Ben now has no sense of direction for his life and feels underwater. Enter Mrs. Robinson, the seductive, alcoholic wife of his father’s friend (Richard Burgi, who excelled in Laguna’s 12 Angry Men directed by Matthews, here plays Mr. Braddock) and business partner Mr. Robinson (Geoffrey Lower). To be sure, walking in Anne Bancroft’s high heels isn’t easy, but co-starring Melanie Griffith in this production is a bit of crafty, clever casting.
She is, of course, the daughter of model/actress Tippi Hedren (Hitchcock’s archetypal blonde in Marnie and The Birds) and mother of Dakota Johnson, female lead in the S&M Fifty Shades film franchise. In her early screen roles, when Griffith was only 17 or 18, she played what used to be called “sex kittens,” such as in two detective flicks both shot in 1975, Arthur Penn’s Night Moves opposite Gene Hackman and The Drowning Pool, starring Paul Newman. In a sense, Mrs. Robinson, the über cougar, is the evolution of Melanie’s libidinal adolescents, all grown up and world weary.
Griffith has gone on the record regretting her plastic surgery, but this enhances her role in a production where the most famous line is “plastics.” Of course, Mrs. Robinson does come across as the type of person who’d resort to cosmetic surgery in order to maintain her looks and illusion of youthfulness. In any case, one can easily imagine a discombobulated young man blurting out to Melanie: “Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me?”
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Of course, Dustin Hoffman was equally iconic as Ben, and Nick Tag is as tall as Hoffman is short. Tag captures the character’s madcap mix of confusion and defiance, while as Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross, of course, originated the part) Martha Magruder emanates the bewilderment and vulnerability of a daughter who comes to realize the startling reality of what her mommy not-so-dearest has been up to with Ben after Elaine starts dating him. At times, Elaine evinces the cunning and wiles of her troubled mother. Will she follow in Mrs. Robinson’s footsteps?
Re-watching the movie I was puzzled at what Ben saw in Elaine, and the play does a better job of providing her back story, showing she is a young woman of depth. For instance, while she’s at that strip club with Ben (the Laguna Playhouse show has some partial nudity, including in this club scene with Taylor Rene Labarbera, an alumni of NY’s Stella Adler Acting Studio, as a stripper or burlesque dancer and/or prostitute), Elaine discusses having attended what is presumably Dr. King’s Civil Rights march on Washington.
Along with Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider, The Graduate exemplified the countercultural “New Hollywood” that eschewed bourgeois values, and epitomized onscreen the youth rebellion then sweeping America. Maybe so, but Ben has the most conventional aspiration regarding Elaine - to marry her. Mind you, Ben just graduated from college and Elaine is still attending Berkeley (that epicenter of radicalism), so they are quite young to wed. So what is Ben really after?
In the Pasadena milieu where the story is apparently set Elaine is the only character Ben has contact with who is his age. It seems to me that he yearns for connection and authenticity - something he doesn’t find with his parents and their materialistic, status conscious set. As for Elaine, her fixation on Cheerios (which is not in the movie but may be in the novella) provides a clue. Early sixties’ TV ads used the tagline “He’s feeling his Cheerios” and the General Mills oat cereal promoted itself as a source of strength.
But missing in action from the two-act play is Ben's Alpha Romeo, itself a character of sorts. With the exception of James Bond’s Aston in 1964’s Goldfinger, Braddock’s auto is probably Hollywood’s most famous vehicle of the 1960’s. The Simon and Garfunkel score used so effectively in the movie is only sparsely heard onstage, although the play uses a number of recordings of the era’s pop songs to express mood, such as Betty Everett’s “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss).”
Your plot spoiler adverse reviewer won’t reveal which Simon and Garfunkel song is heard over the theatre’s p.a. system, but it should be bloody obvious. And without going into detail, the stage ending is good but doesn’t pack anywhere near the wild wallop of the movie’s denouement. In any case, Laguna Playhouse’s production is enthusiastically recommended as a very funny comedy of manners and much more - although with a kinky plot, simulated sex scenes and semi-nudity, it’s not for the kiddies. The play also gives audiences the opportunity to see Melanie Griffith perform live and in the flesh (and I mean, in the flesh), a movie star who was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award in 1988’s Working Girl directed by - guess who? - none other than the immortal and much missed Mike Nichols.
The person I personally know who reads the most fiction once told me that the lives of writers are often more interesting than their books. I don’t know if Charles Webb’s tumultuous existence is more intriguing than The Graduate is. The creator of the ultimate young rebel is now 78 and still alive, and has reportedly suffered much in his years. So, for creating such wonderful characters and such a rip-roaring saga about youthful rebellion (those admirable kids at Parkland may now be picking up the mantle), on behalf of millions of readers, viewers and theatergoers, I believe I can honestly say: “Goo goo g’ joob Mr. Webb, Jesus loves you more than you will know.” I never read your book but it’s at the top of my list now, Chucky ol’ boy.
The Graduate is playing through March 25 on Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; 2:00 p.m. on Thursdays and Saturdays; and Sundays at 1:00 p.m.; with additional Sunday performances on March 18 and March 25 at 5:30 p.m. at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, CA 92651. For more info: (949)497-2787; www.LagunaPlayhouse.com.
The third edition of the movie history L.A.-based reviewer/film historian Ed Rampell co-authored, The Hawaii Movie and Television Book, drops in April 2018.