A Family Affair

Lamp those gams. Photo by Jackson Newell

There is a crushing disappointment when we realize that the fellow in the mortarboard and gown in Maverick Theater's The Graduate is supposed to be Benjamin Braddock. Round-faced and with a mild bald spot, this is the man who's going to rebel for us and with us against a culture of squares and a future of plastics? That is not Dustin Hoffman!

There is a second disappointment when Mrs. Robinson opens her stony mouth and allows a sweet, girlish voice to tumble out. It's the same incongruousness of watching Madeleine Albright speak—talks like a Valley Girl, looks like a crone—and I almost wanted to strike her for not being Anne Bancroft.

I'd guess that's probably the biggest problem when you stage a flick that's entirely beloved and that everyone's seen. You either get slavish imitations, as if you were in a comedy club watching your 70th "Jim from Taxi," or you get actual acting that doesn't rely (too much) on its iconic forebears. And that—the actual acting, I mean—takes a few moments of getting used to.

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Once you're used to it, of course, The Graduate is a terrific evening and—dare I? I dare!—a family affair. (My son, whom I once took to see Medea on Mother's Day, liked the be-pastied stripper the best.) Cleverly staged in an empty white room—in which folks leave through one door and enter another into the same room as if it's an episode of Scooby-Doo or a trip to the Winchester Mystery House—the room is alternately the Braddocks' living room (where Mr. Braddock always seems to be holding either a martini or a set of barbecue tongs), the Robinsons' living room (set apart by a bar that's much-made-use-of atop a carpet of golden shag), Mrs. Robinson's bedroom, the hotel room where they tryst, and the Braddocks' swimming pool, in which Benjamin stands stock-still in his frogman outfit while the party guests watch from a catwalk above. Targeted use of the original Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack during scene-shifting blackouts was an added bonus and a laugh line in itself—though how the Maverick got permission to use the tunes (if in fact they did) remains an impressive mystery.

More than the clever staging, though (sets and sound were designed by director Brian Newell), were the actors, bantering the wordy dialogue perfectly and often differentiating their up to three roles each with broad mugging and Snidely Whiplash-style voices (and Flock of Seagulls hair). And of course Benjamin (Stephen Kline) and Mrs. Robinson (Rayanne Trumbo) managed the lightning moves from ridiculous to tragic very, very well. That, and Trumbo's got a magnificent rack.

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I've always felt, of course, that Mrs. Robinson was tremendously misunderstood, written, as she was, like Greek tragedy. Nor did I ever understand Katharine Ross' (pardon me: Elaine's) wide-eyed appeal. "She's young," my mother explained with surprise, as if that were the end of it. "That's enough." And maybe for a Katharine Ross look-alike like my mom was 40 years ago—a member of the generation that was about to remake the square, fussy world in its juvenile image—it was enough. But a generation removed, watching with the fondness of grandchildren instead of the contempt of children forced to slay their father the king, Mrs. Robinson and her scotch-soaked contemporaries come off . . . lovely.

I mean, perhaps Mrs. Robinson came off a bit strong; maybe there's even a whiff of child-rapist to her, with her willful non-understanding of No Means No. But Mike Nichols' original played her like a harpy, a shrieking monster at the end when Hoffman and Ross ride off together into the west. Was it so difficult to understand, even if she didn't explain, that she'd rather not have her lover leave her for Electra? Is that, like, hard for someone to figure out?

In the Maverick's production—based on the London stage play from a few years back, which The New York Times just excoriated—Mrs. Robinson is no longer a harpy. She is stonily silent and terribly sad, but she is not a monster. I don't know if that's revisionist, or if it's just got the distance of time.


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