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A post-'Graduate’ sellout

Times Staff Writer

Subtly and subversively funny, the 1967 film “The Graduate” ripped the plastic sheen off life among America’s upper-middle-class decision-makers, exposing the sham morality and shameless avarice underneath.

It’s creepy, then, to see the material repackaged for the stage in a crassly commercial manner that turns this act of rebellion into the very things it rebels against. Arriving at the Wilshire Theatre on tour after making a splash in London and New York, the adapted version hard-sells its laughs while sugar-coating and cheapening the story. It seems to gamble that the public remembers only enough about the movie to whet interest in tickets, and closes the sale by presenting celebrity actresses in a much-hyped nude scene.

Kathleen Turner opened the London and New York presentations, appearing on Broadway opposite Jason Biggs and Alicia Silverstone. Los Angeles gets onetime model and Mick Jagger consort Jerry Hall, opposite former “Boy Meets World” hottie Rider Strong.

In many ways, it’s hard to imagine a film less suited to stage adaptation. Working from Charles Webb’s novel, Calder Willingham and Buck Henry devised a screenplay that let audiences play along, reading between the lines. Director Mike Nichols and cinematographer Robert Surtees turned this into a masterpiece of moodiness in which a recent college graduate (a zombie-faced, neurotically whimpering Dustin Hoffman) responded to the sexual advances of an older, married friend of the family (slyly underplayed by Anne Bancroft). In so doing, the young man slipped into the exact behavior he feared and despised.

This was a movie of artful camera angles and wordless montages. A sun-washed swimming pool, a bright red Alfa Romeo and caged monkeys provided key bits of symbolism.

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Very little of this is achievable on stage, which, perhaps, prompted adapter and original director Terry Johnson to over-explain so much of what the movie wisely left unsaid. It does not, however, explain the relentless pandering for laughs, nor the conflicting tones of crudeness (mimed sex acts under the sheets) and comfort (the rebellion is drained from the movie’s ultimate act of defiance).

As staged for the tour by production supervisor Peter Lawrence, scenes unfold with a plodding sameness on a set (designed by Rob Howell) that only hollowly evokes the white, louver-shuttered, suburban fakeness of the movie.

In playing the adulterous Mrs. Robinson, Hall goes for the obvious with her deep, sultry voice and come-hither poses. It’s easy to see why Strong’s Benjamin could succumb to such trim, leggy temptation, but like so much else about the production, this merely undercuts Benjamin’s moral quandary.

Half a head shorter than Hall, Strong seems awfully innocent and cuddly here. Still, his nakedly emotional performance -- delivered in an amusingly adenoidal voice -- is this production’s chief reward.

As Elaine, the younger Robinson who becomes Benjamin’s subsequent love interest, Devon Sorvari wrestles with a part that has been clumsily rewritten to make her character more self-aware and socially conscious.

Playing Benjamin’s parents, William Hill and Kate Skinner are saddled with roles that have been reduced to shrill caricatures. But in an interesting twist, a fit, rugged Dennis Parlato plays Mr. Robinson as a golden boy turned silver by age.

Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” so integral to the movie, is merely hinted at, and “Mrs. Robinson” isn’t heard until the audience is leaving.

The true soundtrack of this production, though, is not Simon & Garfunkel, but the sound of ringing cash registers.

*

‘The Graduate’

Where: Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills

When: Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 1 and 6:30 p.m.

Ends: Oct. 26

Price: $30-$60

Contact: Ticketmaster, (213) 365-3500

Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Jerry Hall...Mrs. Robinson

Rider Strong...Benjamin Braddock

Devon Sorvari...Elaine Robinson

William Hill...Mr. Braddock

Kate Skinner...Mrs. Braddock

Dennis Parlato...Mr. Robinson

Presented by Broadway/L.A. Produced by Jon B. Platt by special arrangement with StudioCanal. Adapted and originally directed by Terry Johnson, based on the novel by Charles Webb and the screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. Directed by Peter Lawrence. Sets and costumes Rob Howell. Lights Hugh Vanstone.


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