“Would you like me to seduce you?” an intoxicated Mrs. Robinson (Kelly McGillis) asks recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock (Jonathan Kaplan) as the two lounge in Ben’s room at the beginning of the Shubert Theater’s “The Graduate.” The broody California baccalaureate, who has numerous extracurricular and academic accomplishments but feels emotionally empty and uncertain about his future, declines the matronly seduction bid — at least for now. Sadly, though Mrs. Robinson is so concerned with catering to Ben’s needs, the randy lush shows no such concern for the audience’s.
Terry Johnson’s play brings every bit of the lasciviousness of the 1967 movie to the stage. The material of the play is very salacious — the audience is privy not only to numerous views of a completely naked Mrs. Robinson but also the facial gymnastics of Ben in the throes of hotel-bed passion. But the play format causes all the subtlety and intimacy provided in the movie to be lost. Devoid of niceties such as thoughtful camera angles and ambient music, the flimsiness of the script and the awkwardness of the acting become as apparent and uncomfortable to watch as the jubilantly jiggly dancing of the oft-nude Mrs. Robinson.
The play opens with Ben sitting in his bedroom, wearing a scuba suit he received as a graduation gift. Soon, his father, Mr. Braddock (William Hill), enters the room to cajole his pouty son out of his post-commencement funk and go greet the three-dozen or so guests at his graduation party. The acting is stiff and uninspired; the conversation seems as awkward and unrealistic as one that might occur if Ben had made use of his gift and the two were having their conversation at the bottom of the Pacific. Soon Mrs. Braddock (Corinna May) enters, and her on-again, off-again enthusiasm only complicates the two-ships-passing-in-the-night level of emotional exchange. Finally, Mrs. Robinson tumbles into the room, mumbling incoherently about a spare bedroom. McGillis offers an all right portrayal, but the still-stolid Kaplan spoils the scene. His complete lack of chemistry with McGillis makes his reluctance to simply ignore Mrs. Robinson in her increasing dishabille not only puzzling but excruciating.
But while the acting often detracts from the emotive quality of the production, inorganic elements help sustain an overall historical mood. Set and costume designer Rob Howell expertly transforms the stage into numerous milieus at an impressive speed. His use of several different beds and furniture, and the placing of these onto the stage within a few seconds while the curtain is down, is praiseworthy. Howell chooses convincing and historically-appropriate costumes, most effectively for squeaky-clean Elaine Robinson (Devon Sorvari). Lighting designer Hugh Vanstone’s contributions are innovative — using merely lights projected onto the curtained stage, he creates a bar, a swimming pool, a hippie psychologist’s office and an elevator. A throbbing, red “vacancy” sign projected in the same way adds a delightful level of authenticity to a deserted, lonely hotel.
Unfortunately, the inconsistent use of music hinders the evocativeness of certain scenes in the play. Sound director Christopher Cronin fails to mine the rich popular associations embedded within popular ’60s tunes. Vexingly, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” a song so popular and so intimately tied to the storyline, receives only limited play. Most frustrating is the use of only tentative instrumental versions of certain songs. For example, when Ben and Elaine are on a dinner date and a patron puts money in the jukebox, flatly recorded music plays; The Clovers’ catchy “Love Potion Number Nine” receives only a muted instrumental treatment by Herb Alpert.
While attempting to find meaning or even verisimilitude in “The Graduate” may inspire in the analytical viewer the same feelings of disillusionment and ennui felt by the play’s protagonist, adept production flourishes somewhat redeem Johnson’s play and make it at least aesthetically pleasing. The show may not inspire deep thoughts, but it’s sufficient for viewers seeking either a trip down memory lane or a carefree diversion.