Theater review: The Graduate at Theatre Charlotte

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Over 30 after the classic film, Terry Johnson had the temerity to adapt The Graduate for the stage in April 2000. Would it really be possible for Kathleen Turner and Matthew Rhys to match the legendary performances Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman as the manipulative Mrs. Robinson and the adorably-conflicted Benjamin? If transposing the Calder Willingham-Buck Henry screenplay to the stage were such a natural, it seemed like it should have happened decades before.

Sue and I loved the original London production, probably because we were drawn to it by the story rather than the tabloids’ hysterical fixation on Turner’s nude scene. Turner’s mid-life sizzle extended far beyond the seduction scene, and the script – drawing also from the Charles Webb novel that the 1967 film was based upon – reaffirmed that the power of the storyline and the dialogue could stand on their own without Hoffman and Bancroft. Confounding the doubters and the critics, the London run was a smashing success.

Koo-koo-ka-choo, Mrs. Robinson!

Fast-forward 10+ years and the commanding influence of The Graduate has somewhat faded. But if it was once dubious that Kathleen Turner could make Mrs. Robinson her own or that the Mike Nichols-directed film could be contained by a proscenium, the challenge seemed heightened at Theatre Charlotte, where the local premiere continues through Sunday.

No, Theatre Charlotte hasn’t pulled a Nicole Kidman out of a hat, but I’ll say this about the Queens Road Graduate, directed by James Yost: it’s funnier than the Hollywood film or the London play. A key reason has to be Adam Griffin’s performance as Benjamin in his Theatre Charlotte debut. I won’t presume to tell you that Griffin outperforms the great Dustin Hoffman, so I’ll describe what he injects into the story from a different angle.

My main problem with the movie was that, even with the great Anne Bancroft saying it, I never could believe Mrs. R when she told Ben, “I find you very attractive.” Griffin’s physicality makes that line more plausible to me, makes Mrs. R’s jealous fury more plausible when her daughter Elaine falls for Ben, and helps me believe that Elaine would commit to marrying Ben at the hour when she was supposed to wed Carl. Griffin’s bumbling remains true to Ben, reaffirming my belief that Webb would have envisioned the American equivalent of Cary Grant in the role rather than a budding Ratso Rizzo.

Of course, Stephanie DiPaolo isn’t a Turner-grade goddess or equipped with the tonsils that make both Turner’s and Bancroft’s voices so unforgettable. Those very shortcomings make her “I find you very attractive” even more believable and help strip The Graduate of the Hollywood veneer we’re accustomed to. Refreshingly cast into a California outside the MGM Studio lots, the cool suburbanite seducing the raw, inexperienced, rudderless graduate has homespun farcical elements the film never captured. Yost has DiPaolo concentrating on her maturity more than how she drapes a naked leg in a doorway, and you’ll probably be surprised at how well it all works.

The other pieces of the story fit together beautifully. Victor Sayegh manages to combine West Coast slickness, cluelessness, and volatility into the cuckolded Mr. Robinson, while there’s a warm avuncular quality at the heart of Philip Robertson’s take on Benjamin’s dad that belies his fussy conventionality.

Sue Gorman as Mrs. Braddock sounds the right note of querulous confusion, and Keely Williams as Elaine pairs nicely with both her domineering mother, Mrs. Robinson, and the rabidly pursuing Benjamin. Williams convincingly mixes the spoiled elegance of a privileged daughter with unquestioning obedience, and the glamour that Ben sees is undercut with a mousy self-doubt that contrasts effectively with the soused assurance of his previous sexual mentor.

Lee Thomas flits around in several roles, scoring most tellingly as the hotel desk clerk and the Braddocks’ family psychiatrist. Johnson’s stage adaptation cagily avoids most of the posh backdrops of the film, so Chris Timmons’ set and lighting further deglamorize the story without debasing it. Scene changes flow smoothly enough thanks to Julie Strassel’s sound design, which is nothing less than a Simon & Garfunkel jamboree.

Yup, Jolting Joe has clearly gone away – perhaps to Scarborough Fair.


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