I like going to the theater to see a play, but some days I think I may be the last person in New York who can still say that. What producers offer up as a dramatic event, especially on Broadway, makes me think I belong in either another country or a different century. Don’t get me wrong; this is not a reactionary’s plea for a return to the Scribean well-made play: I’ve translated Scribe and know his value, but I also know the difference between 1842 Paris and 2002 New York. I am not a formalist snob; I’ll gladly take anything that unfolds its sense to me onstage as I watch.
That’s what distresses me, to varying degrees, about the events under review: They don’t make complete theatrical sense. The Graduate, to start at the bottom of the barrel, doesn’t make any sense at all. Seeing it, I didn’t know why—aside from profiteering off a famous title—anyone had gone to the trouble of putting it there. And its lack of purpose reached backward to infect other phenomena: If Terry Johnson’s adaptation is in any way an accurate representation of Charles Webb’s novel, which I’ve never read, then the novel must also not make any sense. Why did Mike Nichols ever want to film it? He apparently got around the problem somehow, because I vaguely remember the movie making sense. And I never used to think it was all that great, but having seen Johnson’s attempt at staging, my hat is off to Nichols, who must be a master of cinema to have made anything at all out of this petty, sordid, incoherent mess.
The Graduate is, or ought to be, the story of a boy who has everything but doesn’t know what he wants. Postponing any commitment to the future, he drifts into an affair with the unhappy, alcoholic wife of one of his father’s business associates; even this reluctant relationship is complicated when he realizes, via some awkwardly stage-managed plot mechanics, that he loves the woman’s daughter. This story would surprise nobody in Europe; from Flaubert’s Éducation Sentimentale to Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart, the French have specialized in versions of it. The surprise in 1968 was finding it planted among the feel-good inanities and Breen Office evasions of Southern California.
This synopsis, however, comes from memory and inference, not from the flaccid onstage antics at the Plymouth, where life is a contextless void and Benjamin Braddock’s coming-of-age looks more like a psychopath’s first foray into lunacy. Even that, though, seems infinitely saner than the audience’s desire to see a well-made movie turned into a clumsy three-dimensional simulacrum. Why not just rent the video? It doesn’t even need to be colorized. (As far as that goes, Technicolor would be an improvement over some of Hugh Vanstone’s monochrome lighting effects.)
Still more puzzling is the notion that 20 seconds of Kathleen Turner naked in an extremely dim twilight might be worth the current cost of a Broadway ticket. I don’t mean to be ungracious, but the desperate can probably find younger and more beautiful women available for closer inspection at the same price. This would spare them having to sit through the script, next to which the book of Mamma Mia! looks like Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. Most of Johnson’s employee victims—the word “actors” is hardly appropriate—understandably seem to have given up. Turner, who presumably felt called upon to make some effort at acting, offers a truly peculiar reading of Mrs. Robinson, equal parts parody sex kitten, high-comedy matron, and horror-movie bitch.
In her defense, it’s hard to imagine any legitimate way of enlivening the role: This is, after all, the version in which Mrs. Robinson became a drunken slut because her daughter was so well behaved. Still, her composure as she stands there placidly, egg from the dimwit dialogue trickling down her face, is hard on Jason Biggs, who actually seems to have some acting ability and, poor schnook, is apparently trying to use it. His struggle is torture to watch; he loses every round, but you can’t blame him, when even an actor as good and practiced as Victor Slezak, who plays Mr. Robinson, is beaten from the get-go. I wish them both a real play, and a director, next time. As for the audience that likes this thing, I wish it an evening of TV commercials—which some enterprising London money-grubber is probably planning as I write.
A Poor Gentleman is the name of a real but slight early play by Ivan Turgenev, written in a time when stage conventions were stock and theatergoing both more casual and cheaper. Fitted up by adapter Mike Poulton with a dressy Shakespearean title—an injudicious ploy that evokes the era of Scott-Moncrieff—it now seems alternately thin and bloated from the effort to make it into a big-ticket Broadway item. And underneath there’s a constant nagging sense that it might reveal a good deal more richness in a gentler, less pressured handling.
The title character (Alan Bates) is a hanger-on at a wealthy young heiress’s estate. When she comes back from Petersburg with a dapper husband in tow, the hero has to rebuild his relationship to her or get his walking papers. His principal obstacle is the comic lead (Frank Langella), a parvenu neighbor who despises the shabby-genteel hero while simultaneously envying his gentlemanly credentials. Since the poor fellow can’t hold his liquor, the parvenu tries to get him ousted by getting him drunk. Result: A secret comes out that turns everybody’s life topsy-turvy, requiring all the hero’s tact and the new bridegroom’s forbearance to set it right again.
Turgenev’s trademark mixture of clearsightedness and compassion flickers only intermittently through this piece. Between them, Poulton and director Arthur Penn seem to have left large areas of its story unexplored, mainly content to clear space for Bates and Langella to give alternating displays of actor-fireworks, as if a play were a sort of showbiz debate club or tennis match. Unluckily for Bates, his particular gift is for the kind of Pinter-era acting in which emotions are only suggested under a deadpan mask. Given mid-19th-century material like this, which demands constant emotional expression, he strives showily to convey every moment’s feelings, so that you tend to see the striving instead of the feeling. Consequently, Langella, who only needs to be excessive and narcissistic, takes game, set, and match. It’s been eons since anyone onstage gloated as excessively or adored himself as narcissistically as Langella, whose skill at squishing all the juice out of such roles is making him our contemporary Cyril Ritchard. Between these two, Enid Graham, as the beleaguered heiress, hardly gets a look in; the remainder of the cast, including Bates’s son Benedick, is essentially dealt with on the same level as the props.
Acting as flamboyant, and better grounded, is the central attraction of Topdog/Underdog, the best work Jeffrey Wright’s done so far on the New York stage, an auspicious acting debut for Mos Def, and George C. Wolfe’s best directing job to date, since for once the panache infuses the event, rather than seeming imposed on it. The problematic part is the event’s core, a script by Suzan-Lori Parks that begins as one kind of play, pauses periodically to make room for items resembling vaudeville acts, and then turns, in an arbitrary, unearned fashion, into another kind of play altogether. Parks is usually so decisive in her methods that this is a puzzler. Its last scene in particular, loaded with past revelations and resentments that seem to come out of nowhere, has the ring of a leftover from somebody else’s old movie.
Possibly this ending tempted Parks because the eerie, iconic situation she sets up seems unresolvable. Two black brothers named Lincoln and Booth (a malicious joke of their father’s) share a tenement room. Responsible, earnest Lincoln earns their living—by posing as President Lincoln in an arcade where customers shoot at him. The younger Booth, a jobless dropout, yearns to be an expert three-card monte dealer, as Lincoln was before a friend’s street murder led to his reform. The brothers’ mixture of camaraderie and rivalry, like their opposing outlooks, is something they’re stuck with, not an uncommon phenomenon in Parks’s meditative works; the outside circumstances that alter it don’t seem to justify the final violence. With actors this good animating Parks’s phrase-layered prose, much of the piece sounds so alive in its stasis that you wonder why she and Wolfe felt the need to push it onward; it’s like trying to turn a house into a car.