Date published: May 18, 2011
Coo Coo Ca-Choo
Moe Harrington plays a memorable seductress in Covey Theatre's take on The Graduate
If the 44-year-old film remains available and every sentient person remembers most of the action and dialogue, you have to wonder why British playwright Terry Johnson adapted Mike Nichols' The Graduate in London a decade ago. His staging leaves the date in the 1960s, when $5 per hour was a huge wage for unskilled labor, and a hotel room for assignation could be rented for $12 a night. The movie remains fixed in time, but as the TV series Mad Men has taught us, things from just a few decades ago are transformed when we look back with our wised-up eyes. People back then hadn't given much thought to cougars. We think about them all the time now.
That "we" includes playwright Johnson and Covey Theatre Company director Garrett Heater, who has unmistakably given immense thought to this production, currently on the boards at the Mulroy Civic Center's BeVard Community Room. Johnson rounds out characterization a bit, drawing more from Charles Webb's 1963 novel, and adding two scenes, one at the end that cannot be revealed. Outwardly much of the rest looks the same. "Plastics," one of the most famous lines of dialogue in the history of Hollywood, is still there, only now uttered by Mr. Robinson. What is changed is the way the characters resonate with one another, generating the kind of tension that makes "drama" synonymous with "stage play." It looks the same but feels vastly different.
Without having seen the London or New York City productions we cannot know for sure why this version feels so different from the movie, but it seems likely to be director Heater's doing. In casting blond Rob Fonda as the title character, Heater gets more of the look of Benjamin Braddock of the novel, a disaffected upper-class WASP who has graduated from tony Williams College. Fonda, who has experienced a run of innocent travelers, including Clifford in Cabaret and Brad in The Rocky Horror Show, gives us a Benjamin who rejects the inauthenticity of upper bourgeois life but who never attempts open rebellion. He's sort of a Holden Caulfield who can deal rather than drop out. Along with this comes an unguarded impetuousness that can get him in trouble and inflict pain.
As for The Graduate's most memorable character, word circulated last winter that Heater had to do some persuading to get musical comedy veteran Moe Harrington to take the role of Mrs. Robinson. About a halfhour into the first act it is revealed to us what he was looking for: Harrington's persona and her extraordinary voice.
Harrington was up for a Lifetime Achievement at the Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) awards this year because she's beloved in the way only a few players are. A skilled comedienne, she cites the role of Ellen in local author Jeff Kramer's riotous Lowdown Lies as one of her favorites. She's always one of the best gagsters at awards ceremonies, and her default modes are laughing and smiling. Thus when Harrington turns into a dark-browed predator, even though we know it's in the script, we're just as startled as Benjamin is. The film's producers famously wanted Doris Day as the original Mrs. Robinson, but our own Moe, our Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, does what the gorgeous but jaded Anne Bancroft could not.
Harrington has done non-singing, noncomic roles often enough, but Heater appears to be the first director to have exploited the silkiness of her speaking voice. It's unusual in a larynx so devoted to cabaret singing, which turns other women into Mermanesque cicadas. The softness could have seduced Benjamin on the phone without him even seeing her. In her lushness we also hear a note of needfulness. Out of this, though, Harrington can forge a dart when she wants to strike at Benjamin, and she can embody ripping pain when a righteous Benjamin strikes back.
There's no question that messing around with Mrs. Robinson is a bad idea and, admittedly, she's an evil person. She usually wears black, even to the wedding. Then again, evil on stage is hardly a liability, which is why we prefer Dracula to Mina, Lucy or Jonathan Harker. Playwright Johnson was wise to give her more dialogue than in the movie.
Kimberly Panek capably takes on the heavy burden of making virtue and sweetness interesting as Elaine, Mrs. Robinson's daughter. Experience counts: She had previously played Sandy in Grease. The two scenes playwright Johnson added to the film script both give Elaine more to do and provide support for Mrs. Robinson's contention that the daughter is at least 10 percent of the mother. In a line retained from the film, she demands to know if Benjamin has read Ayn Rand's rightist screed, The Fountainhead. Despite Elaine's childlike love of Cheerios, she has some surprises for her husband in their coming life together.
Beyond the love triangle of boy-girl-mother, The Graduate is also a critique of suburban consumerism, most of which has taken different forms more recently. The several parents, whom Benjamin calls "grotesque," are gently drawn comic figures, almost endearing when compared with grown-ups in, say, Judd Apatow or Farrelly Brothers movies. In what could have been a thankless role, Katheryn Guyette turns Benjamin's mother into a scene-stealer, a walking domestic obsession, like Barbie in Stepford, only nuts. Bob Fullenbaum's Mr. Braddock is readily given to bluster but never becomes an ogre. He's quick to reverse course and take Benjamin's side, if possible.
Heater gets more out of the role of Mr. Robinson by casting Wil Szczech, the same man who played the lusty Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons for Simply New Theater a few years back. By attributing to him the iconic line, "Plastics," Mr. Robinson becomes the macho embodiment of the world sensitive Benjamin dreads to enter. Of course, Benjamin never intended to cuckold, but we know he has indeed been gored. His subsequent rage, although justified, comes off as impotent.
Director Heater squeezes much fun out of four supporting roles, starting with Erica Dutelle as the stripper, more ironic than in the film. Gennaro Parlato prudently underplays the seen-it-before hotel clerk. Bruce Paulsen switches from barfly to sober cleric within moments, and Basil Allen as the psychiatrist milks seven-beat pauses for all their worth.
Like other dramas taken from the silver screen, The Graduate calls for many, many rapid scenes changes with all kinds of furniture schlepped back and forth on casters, as well as multiple uses for Maggie Blythewood's fixed set. Le Moyne College lighting expert Michael Blagys performs tricks of concealment never called for at the Jesuit college.
So how does the move from screen to stage work? A line like, "You're the most attractive of any of my parents' friends," gets a bigger laugh when we hear it live, even when we know it's coming.