There is a set of inherent dangers that comes with mounting a stage version of a film as beloved and iconic as “The Graduate” and, on opening night of Bag & Baggage’s production of the classic “unhappy housewife seduces naive, lost college boy” story, the possible pitfalls of just such an undertaking presented themselves to me as questions.
The first, rather obviously, is can anyone besides Anne Bancroft really cut it as Mrs. Robinson? Also, how might live theater succeed in capturing the dreamy, melancholic quality that makes Mike Nichols’ movie so irresistible? And, given that the 1967 film is itself based on a novel, is another adaptation necessary? Or even advisable?
The answers, to over-simplify, are, “Yes. Well, sort of” and, “It doesn’t, and that’s OK,” and, “Not really, but the stage production holds its own particular charms.”
The key, perhaps, to enjoying “The Graduate” in the proscenium as opposed to on the silver screen, is coming at it with an open mind. Which is what Ben Braddock is looking for in everyone he meets – a willingness to share with another person one’s deepest self, whatever that that is. And then he despairs because what he finds instead are wooden and rigid people driven by social convention into unhappy marriages, unfulfilling careers, and hopelessly dull lives.
Lines of the night: Fans of the film will be glad to know that many of its most quoted lines remain intact in the stage adaptation. Mrs. Robinson (Kymberli Colbourne), cigarette and scotch in hand, still utters the now-famous equivocation, “Benjamin, I am not trying to seduce you. Would you like me to seduce you?” and Mr. Robinson, ever the practical businessman, purposefully corners Ben in order to give him this cryptic advice: “I’ve got one thing to say to you, Ben. One word: plastics.”
But many of the best lines in the show are lesser known or don’t appear in the movie at all, and the bonus is, they’re very funny. When Mrs. Robinson comes upon Ben (Eric St. Cyr) in his birthday wet suit, she observes, “That’s a hell of a suit. It looks like a prophylactic for the severely anxious.” Consider, also, Ben’s response when Elaine asks him if he’s always thought his life was meaningless.
“What happened?” she asks.
“It was unrequited.”
“The Graduate” is about Ben’s search for meaning in what, at first blush, appears to be a world all but stripped of it. And he does seem to find what he’s looking for, first in the skilled but sad arms of Mrs. Robinson, and later in the glowing promise of her idealistic daughter, Elaine. The problem, though, isn’t the world at large. It’s Ben himself, and this has always been my beef with the movie. Winningly atmospheric as it is, it suggests Ben as a hero of sorts. The stage production, by leaning hard on humor, points out the essential ridiculousness of Ben’s pose – “You are a lot of things, Benjamin,” Mrs. Robinson says, “but you add up to nothing” – and wins our sympathy to the side of people like the Robinsons and the Braddocks, forced into roles they’d rather not play.
Memorable moments: In the seduction scene, Megan Wilkerson’s stage design – a minimalist set defined by large, screen-like boxes, themselves boxes within more boxes (a subtle commentary on the fact that the characters are boxed in by traditional expectations) – pairs with Jim Ricks-White’s lighting work to create a gorgeous and hilarious tableau. Their bodies lit from behind and projected but not directly in view, Mrs. Robinson and Ben engage in athletic and even sadomasochistic love play, while Ben’s parents (the excellent Kim Bogus and Michael Rouches) seem to call to him from another room. The effect is ingenious. On one side of the stage, ellicit sex. On the other, parents wielding golf clubs and oven mitts, wondering if they’re son intends to “stay in bed all summer.”
Strengths: St. Cyr is convincing as the endlessly dissatisfied Ben. Alternately breathless and halting in his delivery, he’s more Andy Kaufman, complete with sexy slouch, than Dustin Hoffman, and the result is impeccably comic.
Colbourne shines and smolders as Mrs. Robinson, proving that Bancroft’s interpretation is not the only one. Colbourne’s Mrs. Robinson is embittered to the point of cruelty. Her vulnerability is kept hidden until the very end of the play, a strong choice on the part of Colbourne and director Scott Palmer, but it also points to a flaw in the stage script. One of the most satisfying and bittersweet realizations one comes to upon multiple viewings of The Graduate is that Mrs. Robinson is a tragic character well beyond saving. Trapped in a marriage of convenience, she sleeps with her friend’s son to ward off crippling loneliness. And then he proves unworthy of her. There is nowhere for her to go, nowhere for her to turn but inward, and that part of her life has been lost as well, to drink and disillusionment.
Weaknesses: And so the show’s lowlight is also one of its main attributes. It’s so busy being funny it sometimes forgets just how sad Ben and Mrs. Robinston’s story really is, making the ending, in which a weeping Ben buries his face in Elaine’s lap, a tad unearned.
Takeaway: How to take anything away from “The Graduate” besides a vague feeling of whimsy, fun, and ennui, all in equal measure? For most of its running time, it’s a romp, a caustic send up of mid-century American suburban malaise, but the ending – of both the movie and the stage production – is ambiguous bordering on hopeless. Ben, secure for the moment in Elaine’s love, still has not found whatever it was he was searching for, and now another human heart is yoked to his pointless journey. We’re left wondering if Ben and Elaine are doomed to become their parents – stuck in a life someone else chose for them – or if some other, kinder fate awaits. Regardless, there is one constant we can count on in this uncertain world, one word, really: plastics.
–Deborah Kennedy, for The Oregonian/OregonLive
Where: The Venetian Theatre, 233 E. Main St., Hillsboro
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 2.
Tickets: $20-$30, bagnbaggage.org or 503-345-9590