A Lackluster Script Spoils THE GRADUATE at Dundalk Community Theatre
Posted on the Baltimore page of BroadwayWorld.com February 26, 2018
In 1963, a young Californian from a family of means, recently returned from four years at Williams College in Massachusetts, brought out a novel about a young Californian from a family of means, recently returned from four years at a college that could have been Williams. The book, of course, was Charles Webb‘s novel The Graduate, an adaptation of which by British playwright Terry Johnson is currently on view at the Dundalk Community Theatre. (On Broadway from 2002 to 2003, the play ran for a respectable 380 performances.)
To judge by the Wikipedia entry on Webb, the author was or became alienated from his family and from traditional paths to success; in later years he has reportedly pursued an idiosyncratic lifestyle some might find bizarre. Again, there seems to be a correspondence between author and character.
And that may help explain the strangeness at the heart of The Graduate. Like what is reported of his creator, protagonist Ben Braddock evinces no interest in advancing his career, no desire to engage in the social niceties expected of him by his parents, and no sense of accomplishment in his stellar undergraduate successes. And no matter how many times Ben is asked to explain his rudeness and anomie, no meaningful explanation comes back. One infers that Ben’s creator Webb was suffering from a similarly inexplicable – not to say irrational – alienation from his roots and history, and could not dramatize anything more cogent because he had no cogency to offer. The novel’s version of the character is thus stuck being a rebel without a well-articulated cause.
The Graduate was nonetheless made into a very successful movie in 1967, with a screenplay by comedian Buck Henry and Calder Willingham, and laser-sharp direction by Mike Nichols. The creative team did two things to conceal the incoherence at the story’s core. First, they gave Ben a speech in the middle to Elaine, his love interest, in which he comments that he feels he is “playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people.” To anyone in that era, this language, though vague, sufficed to evoke what was then called the “generation gap.” Young people of that day, like this critic at the time, were apt to feel that their parents were “the wrong people” to make up the rules. In addition, Mike Nichols had the perspicacity to insist on the folk/pop duo Simon & Garfunkel to provide most of the music. The singers’ street cred as troubadours of the youth movement, together with that one little speech, made it possible for young to see Ben as an avatar of a generation that thought its parents as wrong about the War, about sex, and about civil rights, and stuck in a hopeless materialism. (Perhaps the most famous line in the show, not from the book, is the recommendation by an oldster to Ben that he pursue a career in “plastics,” the word being synonymous in that day and age with shoddy manufacture, and when you called a person “plastic,” it was a damning putdown. So much for parents and their values!)
But in terms of character construction, this facile explanation was only lipstick on a pig. There was plenty of rejection of parents in the book and in the movie, but neither Ben nor Elaine was taking any general or generational position, or meaningfully rejecting parental values. (Ben, for instance, simply leaches off his parents for awhile, or lives off the proceeds of earlier leaching; Elaine is still finishing her undergraduate degree at Berkeley. No one is talking about going off freedom riding, demonstrating against the War, or denouncing materialism.) So this was not about the values at issue in most people’s generation gaps. What made the story work, to the extent it did, had little to do with values, and indeed, little to do with the pose of surliness toward elders that is Ben’s default. Instead, the mainspring is the strictly personal drama of Ben, Elaine, and Elaine’s mom, Mrs. Robinson. If Ben had not been disillusioned or had been polite, this story would have worked much the same way, and would have worked as well.
In passing it should be noted that Elaine has no more convincing depth to her than Ben does. She is blown by every passing wind, and apparently constantly falling in and out of love with Ben, in conformity with plot requirements rather than in response to any well-imagined interior life.
Ben’s character may be a phony pastiche, and Elaine’s a confusing cypher, but in Elaine’s mother Mrs. Robinson, Webb and the moviemakers laboring after him struck gold. Bored, lecherous, alcoholic, deeply dishonest, vengeful, and possessed of a twisted motherly loyalty, she is real and vital and scary as hell. (It did not hurt either that she was brought to life by Anne Bancroft in the role of her career.) In limning Mrs. Robinson, Webb did nothing less than address a gap in the fictional canon. Most young men encounter someone like Mrs. Robinson in their growing years, but her type had and has seldom been written about (Phaedra being the big exception, having been dramatized by such notables as Euripides, Seneca, and Racine). Certainly no one has ever pictured the type so well. Her initial imperious and bullying pursuit of Ben while steadfastly denying that she is doing any such thing is a bravura performance, the damage she subsequently wreaks is credible and a little tragic, and the ultimate comeuppance she receives brings the story to a satisfying conclusion. Readers and moviegoers, including this one, are ready to forgive every other flaw in The Graduate because Mrs. Robinson is such a wonderful villain.
There is another problem with dramatizing the book that bears mentioning here: the deadpan transcription of the dialogue. When I read the book as a high schooler, I puzzled over whether it was supposed to be funny or not. Buck Henry and Calder Willingham certainly thought it was, and the movie plays as a highbrow satire of a materialistic society in the eyes of its critical and somewhat ungrateful children. But the book does not insist on being taken as a comedy.
Terry Johnson‘s dramatic recasting of the tale, which owes something to the book and more to the movie, goes one step further, and presents the material as a sex farce. This choice is a disaster. Though there are some farcical touches, mainly fueled by Benjamin’s efforts to keep the affair with Mrs. Robinson a secret, the material lacks and indeed cannot be reconciled with any classic farcical structure. Sex farce is driven by concealment, usually of adultery, to be sure, but when the adulterous affair is with a self-destructive, narcissistic gorgon, the stakes grow too high for farce. And the unmasking of the concealment, usually the denouement of a sex farce, usually solves underlying problems without severe collateral damage to anyone. Here the unmasking completes the destruction of a marriage, wreaks havoc with the business and social relationship between Ben’s family and Elaine’s, and has only one positive feature: the fact that Ben and Elaine end up together.
How do you fix the mismatch between material and treatment? If you’re Terry Johnson, apparently, you dumb things down. You take some of the meanness out of Mrs. Robinson, giving her a sisterly drunk scene with her daughter, and add a hint of reconciliation between her and the young lovers at the end. You give Elaine more agency, too much, and have her (on second thought, after first crying about it) getting chummy with the stripper who had humiliated her (a wasted Rachel Verhaaren). You throw in a scene that seems like a bunch of unfunny cheap shots at the Sixties (an expected psychiatrist who turns out to be a guru with dysfunctional furniture). And you add a scene to the end, after Ben and Elaine’s elopement, that adds nothing to the unsettledness of the endings of the book and of the movie. Further, largely to cut down on the number of scene changes (probably), you disturb the order in which the dramatic cards are played. One thing you cannot say against either the book or the screenplay was that the writers didn’t know how to build a dramatic structure. Some of the plot development suffers because of Johnson’s rejiggering. For instance, Mrs. Robinson’s initial seductive campaign ought to be played out in two spaces: Ben’s family’s house and the Robinsons’ home; these spaces should feel different, with the second one much more dangerous. And that doesn’t happen here. Likewise, the funniest line in the movie (“Are you here for an affair, sir?”) doesn’t happen, presumably because the setup for it would have required more staging.
I’ve necessarily avoided to this point talking about this particular production. I greatly admired Dundalk’s recent rendering of The Bridges of Madison County, which struck me as a community theater hitting well above its weight, in singing, staging, scenery, and overall performing talent. I cannot say the same of this outing, though with the Johnson script it would be hard to do outstanding work. That said, Dyana Neal’s Mrs. Robinson is pretty much perfect. She has the intimidating stare, the commanding manner, the resolute lack of curiosity about any aspect of the world aside from sex, tobacco, and alcohol, the maternal protectiveness, all down pat. If Anne Bancroft is looking down from heaven, she probably approves.
Benjamin posed a major casting challenge in the movie: everyone involved recognized that putting a relatively short and recognizably Jewish actor like Dustin Hoffman in the role was going to change the dynamics. In a sort of reverse from The Merchant of Venice the love plot felt a bit like a Jewish Lorenzo stealing a Gentile Jessica from her family. But the book reads as an all-WASP affair. As Buck Henry acknowledged, the original Ben was probably meant to be a tall and blond and athletic, which nebbishy Dustin Hoffman was not. Stephen Edwards fits neither the blond god nor the nebbish pattern physically, and he plays the character (who in the book is usually taciturn, and has a fairly tough affect in the movie) as a distressed adolescent, prone to all the hand-wringing that you get in the youthful protagonist of a sex farce. It just doesn’t work well.
Elisabeth Johnson is fine as Elaine – which is to say that, being faithful the incoherency imposed on her by the script, she barely ends up portraying a character. It isn’t fair to an actress to make such demands.
Even the set is a mistake, though one that seems to echo the Broadway original: a vast beige/pink room surrounded by enough louvered doors for two sex farces – even where the plot would call for solid doors. Benjamin frequently finds himself in tight places, and the set fails the minimal requirement of conveying this literally or metaphorically.
Finally, what of the nudity? Kathleen Turner as Mrs. Robinson put this show on the map by standing naked for twenty seconds in a hazy blue light that revealed very little, and the same effect is tried here, which, for my money, was and is a mistake. No one is promoting gratuitous nudity, but these days audiences can handle it where it is appropriate. And the moment when Mrs. Robinson stands naked before Ben, the first moment she verbally acknowledges that she is in fact trying to seduce him, should be shocking, not just titillating. Mike Nichols knew this back in 1967, although he was able to shoot it in such a way that Anne Bancroft‘s or a body double’s absolutely forbidden bits did not seem to be on view. Since you can’t do camerawork like that on the stage, you should simply but really show it. Nor is this all. The stripper’s bidirectional twirling tassels effect from the movie is an important plot and character device which I don’t think can be pulled off unless the bustier is – and here it isn’t. This was not an audience which would have blanched; I saw white-haired grannies chuckling at suggestions of oral sex.
So sadly, I’d have to recommend that, if you’re up for revisiting The Graduate, buy the DVD or reread the book, both of which are still available, and wait for Dundalk Community Theatre’s customary high standards to reassert themselves next time around.
Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn