Michael L. Quintos
- Associate Los Angeles Critic
Actress Melanie Griffith has an enviable, extensive résumé that spans many decades that include several significant roles on the big and small screen. But, arguably, most of the world knows her best for her notable Oscar-nominated work in the 1988 Mike Nichols hit comedy "Working Girl," a film which also earned her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy.
That high-profile role—in which her character famously spouts "I have a head for business and a body for sin"—is perhaps why her casting in a new production of the stage adaptation of Nichol's earlier 1967 cinematic masterpiece "THE GRADUATE" makes total sense, especially as a marquee draw at a regional Southern California theater.
As demonstrated in "Working Girl"—and, to some extent, in several of her other films before and since—Ms. Griffith has shown a knack for playing the bawdy seductress or the go-to object of another character's lust. She has a history of being cast as strong-willed women that are often quite confident and very much in touch with their own sexuality…both as a means to get what they want or even to get ahead. Recalling her work in "Something Wild," "Body Double," "Milk Money," "Born Yesterday," "The Bonfire of the Vanities," and even her 2003 Broadway debut as sexy murderess Roxie Hart in the musical "CHICAGO" certainly all serve as good pieces of evidence for this theory.
So, in a way, it's not much of a surprise to learn of her latest role.
Yes, it's true: Ms. Griffith can now be seen on stage playing pop culture's most famous cougar, Mrs. Robinson—the infamous "mom of a certain age" who uses her predatory sexuality to seduce a recent college graduate into entering a torrid affair—in a new production of "THE GRADUATE," which continues its just-extended engagement at the Laguna Playhouse through March 25, 2018 in Laguna Beach, CA.
On paper, the role seems like a perfect fit for the now 60-year-old star who has demonstrated prior success in playing sultry, seductive women. But as executed here in this production, the results—like the dysfunctional relationships that criss-cross in this play—aren't as well-matched as you'd hope it would be.
For the most part, Ms. Griffith visually fits the role of a beautiful older woman who spots a nervous, anxious, vulnerable young man across the room and proceeds to have him wrapped around her nicotine-stained fingers. When she first appears—svelte, classy, and 60's-coiffed to the nines like you'd expect her to be—you initially buy the facade. The audience instantly understands why a horny but confused recent college grad becomes extra jittery around her.
Alas, the delivered performance that continues throughout the play is a bit more subdued than one would hope Mrs. Robinson would be portrayed as, especially for a character that has so many layers of emotional baggage to unpack. Ms. Griffith's rather guarded, tentative performance betrays, perhaps, a nervousness to get all her lines out correctly. She also relies primarily on her own soft-spoken, sex-kittenish voice that stays in the same passive tone and cadence whether angry, sad, delighted, or even playful. Those hoping for a slightly more ferocious cougar will have to seek the original film for one.
But there's an unexpected twist! Though Ms. Griffith may be the initial big-name draw for audiences to come and check out this stage adaptation at the Laguna Playhouse, what will get them to stay and, perhaps, even enjoy the play more is, surprisingly enough, the excellent newcomer tasked to play the iconic title role played so memorably by Dustin Hoffman in the film.
As adorkably skittish, direction-less recent college grad Benjamin Braddock, relative newcomer Nick Tag proves himself to be an intriguing lead. While seemingly rife with annoying traits and odd red flags, Ben—in Tag's hands—ends up becoming an endearing (albeit flawed) character. He does a genuinely appealing job portraying a young man on the brink of adulthood—whether he likes it or not. Despite his smarts and scholastic achievements, Ben is scared shitless for his uncertain future… a future his parents and all their adult friends seem to want him to decide for him right here and right now. For his part, Tag does a great job straddling this fine line between being eccentric and being relatable.
Tag's relatable nature serves him well in his reactions to the sexually-charged scenes he shares with the subtler Ms. Griffith, who arrives as Ben's temporary salvation from all this future planning business. It doesn't hurt that Tag is a hottie, which explains Ms. Griffith's understandable attraction.
Ben, at first, vehemently (and awkwardly) refuses the overt sexual advances of his parents' friend Mrs. Robinson. But, eventually, the aimless young man spends a horny, lazy boy's dream summer break: all-night secret sexual escapades with an experienced woman at a paid-for hotel, while spending his days lounging pool side conveniently avoiding having to plan for his post-graduate future.
Hilariously manic and impulsive one moment, and then filled with awkward bravado the next, I was truly impressed with Tag's impassioned portrait which, thankfully, allowed for a different, very un-Hoffman-like presentation of his character—opting instead for a more authentically youthful, 21-year-old persona that's part spoiled, irrational brat and part dorky naive romantic. Though bold strokes are used to paint these quirks and traits, I still found myself entertained by Tag's characterization of a guy not ready to start down the same "square" next step that his parents are nudging him to take.
Ben's journey is, after all, the true focus of the play, and Tag, for his part, holds us in relatively rapt attention while surrounded by a multitude of loudly over-the-top adults that include commendable performances from Richard Burgi as Ben's relentlessly barking father, Valerie Perri as Ben's shrill, over-attentive mother, and Geoffrey Lower as Ben's father's business partner—who also happens to be the husband of the older woman Ben's been sleeping with clandestinely at a local hotel.
Following the plot of the film quite similarly—though feeling a bit more chopped and truncated here on stage—this theatrical iteration also introduces the same additional complication/wake-up call into Ben's life: Elaine Robinson, the lovely and headstrong young daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson played well by Martha Magruder, whose role is expanded a bit more from the film. Sharp and analytic, Elaine is supposed to be a younger, livelier version of her mother—a parallel that doesn't quite come together here, though it's not Magruder's fault.
Though Ben initially wants to rebuff Elaine with a purposely terrible first date at a strip club (Ben's parents have been egging Ben to seek her out all summer), he soon discovers how much they have in common and he, yup, falls for her, too—much to chagrin of Elaine's mother who thinks Ben is, wow, not good enough for Elaine! Funny enough, Elaine may actually be just the medicine Ben needs to be slapped out of his funk. Will these crazy kids make it work?
Initially adapted for the London stage in 2000 by Terry Johnson—which is, of course, based on the witty, terrific screenplay written by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham as well as the novel by Charles Webb—the play version dilutes a lot of the film into manageable self-contained vignettes that, sure, move the story forward, but moves it forward like it's on a conveyor belt of greatest hits segments from the movie (its many very quotable lines remain intact to the delightful giggles of the audience). The guts of the movie are there, but seemingly only by proxy.
For his part, director Michael Matthews does an admirable job making sure the nostalgic 60's-era essence of the story remain—aided by a generous use of familiar pop songs from the era alongside the familiar Simon and Garfunkel music that has been synonymous with the film. The look and feel of the era is also ever present.
Additionally, Matthews has integrated an elaborate roadmap to make the transitions between each vignette feel like mesmerizing bits of meticulously-choreographed theatrical staging—cleverly populating the mid-century modern-esque set by Stephen Gifford with ensemble members and stagehands adorned in Kate Bergh's era-authentic costumes, while moving set pieces, furniture, and props as if they were omniscient, powerful unseen ghosts deciding exactly where the story goes next. While, yes, these transitions do act as distractions to the play's shortcomings, they are, hands down, some of the most elaborate scene changes I have seen in a play in, probably, ever—that does add a coolness factor to the production I did not expect.
Of course, at the heart of "THE GRADUATE" is the tug-of-war between generations that's still present in the stage adaptation, if mildly diluted. This generation gap causes constant conflicts between Ben and his parents and even Ben with Mrs. Robinson, despite a supposed "connection." It is only when he meets an "equal" in Elaine does he finally feel comfortable to be openly neurotic—as if these, well, self-absorbed characters don't have enough opportunities to think about themselves and their comfort levels.
Overall, despite its missteps and being an imperfect adaptation, I have to say that I still found "THE GRADUATE" an entertaining piece of live theater on many levels. Ms. Griffith may draw you in out of curiosity, but I recommend staying for the whole experience not only to witness a promising newcomer's early acting work but also to see a quote-heavy Reader's Digest version of a nostalgic trip.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.
Photos from THE GRADUATE by Ed Krieger, courtesy of the Laguna Playhouse.
The Laguna Playhouse Production of "THE GRADUATE" continues extended performances through March 25, 2018. The Laguna Playhouse is at 606 Laguna Canyon Road in Laguna Beach. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (949) 497-ARTS or visit lagunaplayhouse.com.