I’ve been trying to figure out why The Graduate , starring the briefly naked Kathleen Turner, could only have been conceived in England, where it first became a sensation.
It’s because the English adore women- any women-who drop their knickers. Trust me on this, I’m English. In the streets, in restaurants, on the stage-makes no difference. No disrespect to Ms. Turner, who originated the role of Mrs. Robinson in London, but anyone can do it at any time. The more, the merrier! And it’s more a question of innocence than prurience. When the willowy Nicole Kidman appeared naked in London-”flashed” would be a better word-for a precious millisecond in discreet, dark shadows during David Hare’s The Blue Room , the reaction was hysterical compared to when she subsequently dropped her knickers in New York. The overheated drama critics of London had to be calmed down with tranquilizer darts fired by a crack marksman from the balcony.
But that is because Ms. Kidman was stripping for Art. Her nakedness, such as it was, was completely and utterly necessary for the role , as indeed is Ms. Turner’s 20 seconds of full-frontal at the Plymouth. These are therefore courageous acts of artistic integrity in our celebrity-obsessed times. But the English appreciate the effort more than anyone.
The lovely, plumdumptous Helen Mirren in younger days stole the heart of the English nation for stripping not just in Shakespeare, but whenever possible. “Time was,” thundered newspaper editorials in mock outrage, “when actresses did it for art.” Ms. Mirren was-and still is-a wonderfully gifted actress who was known for a time as “The Sex Queen of the Royal Shakespeare Company.” You see the cultural difference? No American actress has ever been named “The Sex Queen of Lincoln Center Theater.”
While international movie-star status helps the stripping classes, in England a local girl will do. Jerry Hall-the lanky ex of Mick Jagger-took over the role of Mrs. Robinson from Kathleen Turner in London, and everyone apparently had a great time just the same. One indelicate critic wrote that it was a long way to go to see two fried eggs, but the point is that the beautiful, sporting Ms. Hall was having a go . She was having a go for the fun of it. Because since time began, the English have loved nothing more than a romp and a big laugh.
Art still matters, of course, but one should never wear it on one’s sleeve. Sex, like movie-star status, isn’t essential, either. (Only the Brits could conjure up the title for one of its quintessential farces, No Sex Please, We’re British .) And the girls are in on the joke. “There you go, boys!” say the ladies happily dropping their knickers on the English stage. “Ta-da!”
The Graduate is the Mamma Mia! of straight plays. The original production was surely no masterpiece; its essential appeal must be kitsch. The Broadway transfer lacks the right sporting spirit. Ms. Turner has been banging on far too much about how “essential” the nakedness is to the role. Of course it is. Everybody knows that. On the other hand, a naked Mrs. Robinson is about as essential to The Graduate as a snowplow is to a balmy summer day. But let’s get on with the show now.
It isn’t a good show; it was always a great story. Benjamin, a disaffected college graduate living in the stifling, affluent suburbs of Southern California, is seduced into an affair by an alcoholic friend of his parents, Mrs. Robinson, and falls in love with her daughter, Elaine. Mrs. Robinson doesn’t approve. Nor, in time, does Mr. Robinson.
Adapted here by the British dramatist Terry Johnson from the cult novel by Charles Webb, this unfortunate evening leaves us too inevitably nostalgic for the wit of Mike Nichols’ fabled 1967 film version. Echoes of Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman in the iconic original roles were bound to intrude. But so much? Mr. Johnson, who also directs, appears to believe that the audience needs only to hear a few chords of Simon and Garfunkel to start swooning in delight. (Some do.) Or he hammers home The Famous Moments from the film for easy, knowing laughs. (He gets them.)
“I’ve got one thing to say to you, Ben,” says smug Mr. Robinson. “May I say one thing to your son?”
“Go right ahead,” says his dad.
This is where the word would naturally follow. But it doesn’t.
“I’ve just got one thing to say, Ben,” Mr. Robinson repeats.
“What’s that, sir?”
“One word, Ben,” he adds again for good measure.
“One word?” Ben repeats. And by now, the leaden setup is at last complete. Here it comes!
And Mr. Robinson says it one more time, to make absolutely certain no one missed it. “Plastics.”
The funniest scene from the movie, like everything else, is thus laid out for us like an over-familiar, overcooked sitcom. Mr. Johnson’s departures from the movie fare no better, I’m afraid. In what way does the absurd set of deadening beige louvered closets that surround the stage from floor to ceiling convey California? Did the set designer, Mr. Rob Howell, suddenly howl out in the middle of the night: “Got it-closets!”? Does he know about the upscale firm named California Closets, with the calling card “Organize your home, simplify your life”? Well, I do. The awesomely dated satire of the pseudo-hippie West Coast therapist would have been better cut. The jolly mother-daughter drunk scene, coming just after the horrified Elaine (Alicia Silverstone of Clueless ) has learned that mum’s been sleeping with Benjamin, is one of several other peculiar choices. Ms. Silverstone can’t act amusingly soused, though the rasping Ms. Turner sure can. But the scene only drags on with Mrs. Robinson’s maudlin confession about how she once taught her husband to sing the high notes “of all the songs he used to want to sing.” It’s silly talk meant to milk sympathy. “And you know what? He never sang to me again …. “
Elaine isn’t the spoiled beauty of the movie, but a Berkeley ditz given to horribly fey statements. “If you notice more little goats, you get more dessert in diners,” she announces. Or “I think cab drivers are mostly fallen angels.” What on earth does it mean? Why mostly ? Why ask? If Alicia Silverstone’s whining Elaine were Holly Golightly, it wouldn’t matter at all. But Elaine isn’t smart enough, and she isn’t irresistibly nutty enough. She’s a suburban bore who throws tantrums.
Do we care if Benjamin ends up with her? (We ought.) Jason Biggs of American Pie 1 and 2 makes a pleasant, lightweight Benjamin, but Ms. Turner’s Mrs. Robinson would give him the heave-ho in the hotel lobby. He has no whimpering sense of angst-a Dustin Hoffman specialty-none of Benjamin’s hangdog, gravely internalized panic on the verge of lunatic things. Mr. Hoffman is sometimes funny without realizing it, but Mr. Biggs isn’t. Everything is coarsely spelled out-from the simulated sex scenes between Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin that are supposed to get a few laughs, to the final coda in a sleazy motel where Benjamin and Elaine, uncertain of the future, lay coyly in bed together eating Cheerios like giddy preteens in a last hurrah that’s meant to convince us we’ve been watching something young and adorable and innocent.
Now the original Mrs. Robinson was lethally cool, classy and mysteriously sexy, and Ms. Bancroft was never naked, so there. But then, her Mrs. Robinson was never in England. Ms. Turner makes a bold contribution even so. She plants herself center-stage and comes out swinging. “Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me?” No wonder Benjamin’s shaking in his boots.
Ms. Turner takes no prisoners. She gets off her one-liners, she vamps, she smokes, she wears unflattering outfits. “Benjamin, would you please unzip my dress?” The star’s 20 seconds follow in ever so discreetly lit shadows. The lights go down, a hush descends, and then the lights come up. It’s all very sweet, like a fan dance. Not a brazenly naked ta-da, more a still-life ta-ta.
Follow John Heilpern via RSS.