The stage play adapted from “The Graduate” works best when it’s following the script of the 1967 movie that by now is on everyone’s Greatest All-time Films list. When it doesn’t, watch out.
Eagle Theater in Hammonton, N.J., is doing a solid job with the play that ran on Broadway for a year in 2002, with bright staging by co-artistic director Ted Wioncek 3d. The nervous, awkward and newly minted college grad named Benjamin (Mike Dorsey) and the cool, collected and one-generation older Mrs. Robinson (Lori-Nan Engler) cavort on an airy stage until Benjamin falls for Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Rachel Brodeur), and Mr. Robinson (Paul Weagraff) goes ape.
But I probably didn’t need to lay out the plot – the film, taken from a novel, is ingrained in our culture, so coo-coo-ka-choo, as Simon & Garfunkel sing famously in the film. That music is incorporated into the scene changes of Eagle Theatre’s production, and much of the dialogue that goes with it echoes what you see on screen. But the stage adaptation by Terry Johnson, who went on to become a director (Broadway’s revival of “La Cage Aux Folles”), has a tough row to hoe – at least as tough as Benjamin’s after he tells Elaine just how well he knows her mom.
The problem: “The Graduate” is cinematically groundbreaking and many of its scenes, indelible: a bored and unmotivated Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman in the movie), swimming across the pool underwater or driving to Berkeley to stalk Elaine at school; Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) gamely removing a stocking or smoothly ordering a martini; Elaine’s father popping into the frame to tell Benjamin that the future is in plastics.
The play just can’t capture much of this – especially the heart-pounding race to a wedding chapel where Benjamin is about to make a final plea for Elaine; instead, his crashing takes place off-stage. In the play, we can hear only the last seconds of it, and see nothing. And instead of a bittersweet ending, we get a psycho-drama in an ante-room of the chapel, where the Robinsons go back and forth about love and “the right choice” with those oh-so-naïve kids.
We also get a gratuitous, perfectly awful drunken scene between Mrs. Robinson and her daughter – it messes up the plot by confusing everything about their relationship in a play that emphasizes Mrs. R’s alcoholism far more than the movie hints. You can’t fault the way that scene and others are done at Eagle Theatre. In fact, you can’t pick any fights with the production, which runs well with the material by making “The Graduate” an entertaining show. A pity, then, that the material the cast runs with is less than the celebrated work it’s taken from. Sometimes all you can say is coo-coo-ka-choo.
“The Graduate” runs through June 27 at Eagle Theatre, 208 Vine St., Hammonton, N.J. 609-704-5012 or www.theeagletheatre.com.