It's an idea so commercially shrewd and creatively dubious that you naturally assume it came from an American. But it was British playwright and director Terry Johnson (Dead Funny; Hysteria) who decided to take Mike Nichols' 1967 film The Graduate and put it onstage. With Kathleen Turner re-creating Anne Bancroft's role as Mrs. Robinson, the show weathered mixed reviews to become a box-office hit in London. Now it has come to Broadway, with Turner joined by a couple of young Hollywood stars, Jason Biggs and Alicia Silverstone. The show serves up the familiar story of a directionless college grad who is seduced by his parents' friend, trots out most of the memorable lines ("Plastics!") and even gives Turner a brief, dimly lighted nude scene. And it's pretty much a disaster.
Times have changed. Not too long ago, the Brits were our role models in theater. They guided us through Shakespeare, virtually reinvented the Broadway musical and inundated us with Tom Stoppard plays. Now they are marching through our American classics, retooling them and throwing them back at us. And lately they have been stumbling. Acclaimed director Nicholas Hytner, soon to take over London's National Theatre, couldn't solve the problem of how to turn Sweet Smell of Success, the film-noir classic, into a Broadway musical. Trevor Nunn's production of Oklahoma!, which won raves in London, failed to wow the critics in its Broadway debut. The problems can't be totally explained by union rules that usually prevent British casts from making the trip over here. The question is, Have the British lost their theatrical touch or just run up against a cultural divide they can't quite bridge?
Not that the Brits, when they are at the top of their game, can't still hit one out of the park. Howard Davies' masterly production of The Iceman Cometh a couple of seasons ago revitalized the Eugene O'Neill war-horse for a new generation. Former National Theatre director Richard Eyre is currently presenting a powerful Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, with a ferocious starring performance by Irishman Liam Neeson.
But Miller's political allegory about the Salem witch-hunts comes naturally to the Brits, who are more comfortable than Americans are with overtly political drama. The distinctive vernacular of some of our other homegrown genres gives the Brits more trouble. The National Theatre's first revival of a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, Hytner's dark-hued production of Carousel (seen on Broadway in 1994), was a beautiful piece of work. But the wide-open frontier of Oklahoma!--while rendered just as beautifully onstage in burnished golds and blues--seems like foreign territory. It's not that Nunn's production puts too much emphasis on the story's "dark" side (de rigueur for any British director remaking a sunny American classic). It's that both the light and the dark elements don't seem sincerely felt--with a leading couple (Patrick Wilson and Josefina Gabrielle) who have little warmth, an Ado Annie (Jessica Boevers) who sounds like Betty Boop and a Jud Fry (Shuler Hensley) too pathetic to convey any sexual danger. By the end, a beautiful morning has turned into a disenchanting evening.