When will Penobscot Theatre Company’s producing artistic director learn that excellent performances and fine production values can’t salvage a bad script?
Excellent and layered performances by A.J. Mooney as Mrs. Robinson and Alekzander Sayers as Benjamin Braddock, coupled with Sean McClelland’s stunning set design and Jose Santiago’s imaginative lighting plot, can’t quite overcome the banality of the script of “The Graduate” that in the second act strays far too far from the film’s iconic ending.
“The Graduate” was a near perfect coming-of-age film that in 1967 made Dustin Hoffman a star and Simon and Garfunkel household names. It was later written as a play by Terry Johnson as a vehicle for Kathleen Turner, who, like Moody, appeared nude on stage.
It premiered in London in 2000 before moving to Broadway two years later. In addition to Turner as Mrs. Robinson, Jason Biggs and Alicia Silverstone played Benjamin Braddock and Elaine Robinson, respectively, to give the show some youthful star power. “The Graduate” ran about a year on Broadway and was not nominated for any awards.
Artistic Director Bari Newport is kicking it off PTC’s 45th season with “The Graduate” and ending it with “Mamma Mia!,” two witless crowd pleasers. In 2002, Matthew Murray said in his review of “The Graduate” on stage for Talkin’ Broadway: “The result is one that seemed impossible: a more brainless, soulless, and heartless show than this season’s other major British import, ‘Mamma Mia!’”
I couldn’t agree more. The company’s first season featured “The Subject Was Roses,” “A Doll’s House,” “Mary, Mary” and “Private Lives,” a delicate balance that included a Pulitzer Prize winner, a Henrik Ibsen classic, and an American and a British comedy about marriage and divorce.
Newport, with the help of Dominick Varney, directs PTC’s version of the show with a relative delicate touch. They pace the play, designed to recreate as much as possible the montages of the film, carefully and concisely, especially the better written first act. The pair also uses the Bangor Opera House stage and the multi-doored set to great advantage.
McClelland’s set is reminiscent of the multi-doored, brightly colored background used in the television show, “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” that premiered a month after the film “The Graduate” debuted.
Instead of bright colors, McClelland painted the set in various tones of silver, gray and gold. Beds and bar stools seem to fly out from behind staid walls. One section turns into a long lost phone booth. The complex set that uses much of the deep stage stands in stark contrast to the shallow characters in the play.
Santiago’s lighting design that is sometimes diffuse and other times stark creates the atmosphere on stage as much as the music of Simon and Garfunkel does. The montage that is the centerpiece of Benjamin’s affair with Mrs. Robinson is stunningly successful because of Santiago’s vision.
Mooney, who earned a much-deserved standing ovation after Saturday’s opening night production, has proven her versatility over and over again. From her energetic, over-the-top performance in Charles Busch’s farce, “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” in 2007 to her fierce portrayal of Barbara in 2015 in “August Osage County” to her menacing fiction fan last year in Stephen King’s “Misery,” Mooney has delighted, terrified and surprised theatergoers.
As the predatory Mrs. Robinson, Mooney is the mother of all cougars, but she also shows a bit of vulnerability when talking of her past in bed with Benjamin. As the play ends, the actress gives the character more heart than she deserves due to the dismal script. The Mrs. Robinson of film fame truly carried a heart of darkness beneath her bosom, but Mooney does not because the playwright wouldn’t allow it.
Nothing Sayers, PTC’s interim director of education, has done on the Opera House stage over the past two years hinted he was capable of giving a soul to the disaffected Benjamin. Yet Sayers, who in previous roles with PTC, tended to talk and move as if his pants were on fire, successfully tamps down all that energy to illuminate Benjamin’s boredom quietly and gingerly.
The actor slowly reveals Benjamin’s disillusioned soul as if peeling off layers of the character’s skin. Sayers makes Benjamin’s sudden obsession with Elaine believable because the actor has let the audience glimpse the character’s true nonplastic nature. His performance shows Sayers could prove to be as versatile as Mooney.
The rest of the cast don’t give as complex performances as Mooney and Sayers do, but the script doesn’t require them to. D.C. Anderson and Jeri Misler are delightfully daffy as Benjamin’s parents. Anderson has some believable moments with Sayers when the two discuss the impact Benjamin’s affair has had on his father’s friendship with Arthur Morison’s Mr. Robinson.
Morison’s indifference to Mrs. Robinson’s drinking and bedding younger men ring as true as the actor’s anguish over his daughter’s decision to leave her fiance at the altar and run off with the likes of Benjamin. Fans of Morison will be startled by his recent weight loss, which has changed his appearance dramatically.
Kelley Davies plays Elaine as sweet and sincere, but the actress has little spark with Sayers. She is not match for Mooney but works well with Morison.
Last season, Newport created a dynamic program that included the cutting-edge drama “Ugly Lies the Bone,” the Disney musical “Beauty and the Beast,” which was so popular that performances were added to the run, and the tense drama “Misery.” This season, she appears to be falling back on her modus operandi of pleasing rather than challenging her audiences.
“The Graduate” will be performed at the Bangor Opera House, 131 Main St., Bangor, through Sept. 23. For information, call 207-942-3333 or visit penobscottheatre.org.
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.