The current National Tour of The Graduate, produced by Jon B. Platt and directed by Peter Lawrence and brought to Raleigh Memorial Auditorium by Broadway Series South, relies heavily on the star power — and sex appeal — of its nominal star. From Jan. 20 through March 8, that would be Oscar and Emmy nominee Lorraine Bracco, who made her Broadway debut as Mrs. Robinson, replacing Kathleen Turner, in November 2002.
Terry Johnson's R-rated stage adaptation of the PG-rated 1967 motion-picture sex comedy directed by Mike Nichols and starring Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, and Katharine Ross transforms Mrs. Robinson's pass at Benjamin Braddock from a titillating peek-a-boo affair into a brief but graphic towel-dropping sequence with Mrs. R bluntly propositioning Benjamin while standing completely nude in a dark corner of his dimly lit bedroom — while Benjamin's parents host a party to celebrate his graduation out by their swimming pool. Looking good in your birthday suit has always been an important part of the box-office appeal of the stage version of The Graduate — in London's West End, on Broadway, or on tour.
Lorraine Bracco is a 54-year-old Brooklyn-born actress — best known for playing quiet, conservative Dr. Jennifer Melfi, psychiatrist for mob boss Tony Soprano in "The Sopranos." She is famous for her raspy voice, pronounced Noo Yawk accent, and smoldering sex appeal. Yet on stage playing Mrs. Robinson — an attractive middle-aged woman on the make, with a highball glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other — Bracco lacks that very special something — let's call it "stage presence," for lack of a better word — to seduce the audience, to make them forget that Mrs. Robinson is a past-her-peak chain-smoking alcoholic adulteress who shamelessly seduces the son of her best friends — a recent college graduate — for cheap thrills. A series of afternoon delights — again simulated more explicitly than in the film — is worth more to Mrs. Robinson than her moribund marriage and/or her long-time friendship with the Braddocks.
Without that special something that Anne Bancroft brought to the role, Mrs. Robinson is a sad old lush who must smell and taste like an ashtray.
The Graduate is set in California in the summer and fall of 1963, at a more innocent time for this nation's undergraduates — a time before President Kennedy was assassinated, before Free Love and Free Speech flowered on the country's campuses, and before the escalating Vietnam War put young men like Benjamin Braddock in a lethal lottery. Despite the Cold War and the then-recent Bay of Pigs debacle, it was a time of innocence and a time of hope. Still, Benjamin seems impossibly naïve, innocent, and inexperienced in romance for a handsome preppy straight-A student headed for graduate school at a prestigious East Coast university.
Broadway veteran and recent Stanford University graduate Jonathan C. Kaplan does his best — and that is considerable — to make Benjamin more charming and less self-centered, to rescue him from his complete indifference toward other people — the total self-absorption — that is the hallmark of his character in the movie and the play. Benjamin embarks on a tawdry affair with Mrs. Robinson more out of curiosity than lust, then he seems to have no problem with dating her daughter, Elaine (Devon Sorvari), despite Mrs. Robinson's strenuous objections. (Benjamin is totally amoral, and you can easily see him growing up to become one of the Wall Street corporate raiders of the 1980s.)
Devon Sorvari is cute as Elaine Robinson, but it is never clear why she would fall for a guy with whom her mother had the affair that broke up her parents marriage. Dennis Parlato is quite good as Mr. Robinson, a hard-charging businessman who foolishly neglects things on the home front — until it is too late.
William Hill and Corinna May do their best to make Mr. and Mrs. Braddock more than just caricatures of well-meaning parents — and they succeed admirably. And John Leonard Thompson (Hotel Clerk/Bar Patron/Psychiatrist), Winslow Corbett (Assistant Desk Clerk), Nathan Corddry (Bellhop/Man in Bar), Kate Levy (Stripper), and Tracy Griswold (Bartender/Priest/Motel Manager) provide considerable comic relief in scenes at a posh downtown hotel and a seedy nudy bar. Thompson's antics as a suspicious Hotel Clerk and a hippy-dippy Psychiatrist are especially entertaining, and Levy makes quite a splash as a Stripper whom Benjamin hires to sabotage his first date with Elaine.
Peter Lawrence, who served as production supervisor for the original Broadway production, allows The Graduate to unfold slowly — too slowly. The show, which concluded to a slow-starting standing ovation Tuesday night (Jan. 20th), frequently drags.
Set and costume designer Rob Howell, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone, and sound designer Christopher Cronin — all of them members of the creative team for the original Broadway production — provide a handsome production design: a semicircle set comprised of floor-to-ceiling louvered wooden doors, a choice array of period costumes, and the requisite soundtrack of 1960s songs that some of us know by heart: Simon and Garfunkel tunes, plus selected hits from Harry Nilsson, the Beach Boys, and the Mamas and the Papas.
The Graduate, with its May-December romance, was still shocking when Charles Webb's novel was published in 1963 and Mike Nichols' film debuted in 1967. Its sordid subject matter, played for laughs, is definitely less shocking now. And making the sexual interludes more explicit — as the Broadway version of The Graduate does — makes part of the audience uncomfortable, while adding nothing to the humor and the insights of the original story.
Second Opinion: Raleigh, NC News & Observer staff writer David Menconi's Jan. 16th Preview: http://newsobserver.com/features/story/3234771p-2893184c.html [inacive 4/04] , and N&O correspondent Roy C. Dicks' Jan. 22nd Review: http://www.newsobserver.com/theaterreview/story/3260829p-2914974c.html [inactive 5/04].
Broadway Series South presents The Graduate Thursday-Friday, Jan. 22-23, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Jan. 24, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Jan. 25, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $16-$66. BTI Box Office: 919/831-6060. Ticketmaster: 919/834-4000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115203/863757. Group Sales: 919/231-4575 or http://www.priorityseating.net/. Broadway Series South: http://www.broadwayseriessouth.com/2003-2004/broadway.html#graduate. The Graduate (1967 Film): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061722/. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/production.asp?ID=13279. Lorraine Bracco: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000966/. "The Sopranos" (HBO Original Series, 1999-Present): http://www.hbo.com/sopranos/.