"Mrs. Robinson is a very strong woman, a very angry woman," Turner says. "I was 45 when I was offered the part — I'm 47 now — and the idea of tackling the issue of middle-aged women and sexuality, of women with sexual power, appealed to me."
The Graduate has arrived at the Plymouth Theatre after a two-year run in London and sell-out pre-Broadway engagements in Baltimore, Toronto and Boston. The play is an adaptation by Terry Johnson of the novel by Charles Webb, which was also the source for the classic 1967 film comedy directed by Mike Nichols and penned by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry.
In addition to Turner, it stars Alicia Silverstone as Elaine, Mrs. Robinson's sweet and innocent college-age daughter; and Jason Biggs as Benjamin Braddock, Mrs. Robinson's young lover and Elaine's suitor.
The three roles were made more than famous in the movie by Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross and a youthful Dustin Hoffman (in his first Hollywood film). In both movie and play, a depressed Benjamin returns home after college in the mid-1960's, rejects both graduate school and a career in plastics, is seduced by Mrs. Robinson and falls in love with Elaine. Playing the bitter and spiteful Mrs. Robinson "was at first quite difficult for me, because I didn't like her," says Turner, who originated the stage role in London. "She's an alcoholic, a bad mother and a bad wife, and she doesn't care about other people. I kept saying, 'I don't like this woman.' But then I started going deeper."
Mrs. Robinson "got pregnant when she was in college, probably right after World War II," Turner says. "And she did the right thing — she married the father of her child and went right into becoming a suburban housewife. She is bored, and she has never explored her own potential. Her husband is very successful, and she drinks to fill up her life and to deaden herself."
To Mrs. Robinson, "Benjamin is a symbol of the fact that society is about to have a revolution, that the rules and men's and women's roles are changing," Turner says. "Benjamin and Elaine are not going to have to accept what she had to accept. It's a new world, and she is going to miss out on that, too. She's angry because she wants a piece of it."
Is Turner concerned about playing a part so strongly identified with another actress? "I ran into Anne, and we spoke," Turner says. "She said, 'Any woman who does this role is very brave.' I said, 'Well, thank you.' I think she's a marvelous actress. If I had to emulate anyone, I'd emulate her. But I don't feel that that's what I'm doing. This is my own performance."
In one brief, dimly lit scene, Turner appears completely nude onstage. "I finally decided I had to do it," she says. "When we started rehearsals, Terry Johnson, who is also the director, said it would be up to me, whatever I thought was appropriate — if I felt I had to come out in my underwear or half naked or fully naked, it would be my decision. Throughout rehearsals I was desperately looking for a way to justify some clothing. But it became clear to me that without the shock of that behavior, the play wouldn't go on, Benjamin wouldn't be kicked into the course of action he pursues. I became convinced that this extreme behavior was necessary for the play. It's not easy, I'm not wild about it, but I believe it's correct."
"The role of Benjamin is so complex," says Jason Biggs, 23, who was last on Broadway in 1992 — playing Judd Hirsch's older son in Conversations With My Father — but who is perhaps best known for having had carnal knowledge of a warm apple pie in the 1999 movie "American Pie." "He's at a time in his life when he's not quite sure what the next step is. He's confused and angst-ridden. He's like a caged bird ready to fly, to break free from social norms."
For Alicia Silverstone, 25, who rose to screen fame as Cher Horowitz in "Clueless," The Graduate marks her major theatrical debut. "It's a big new deal for me," she says. "The first night in front of an audience, in Baltimore, I felt sick and wanted to cry. But slowly but surely, I've gotten into it, and now I'm having a blast."
Silverstone says that in the play, Elaine is a more complete character, in part because the play is based primarily on the novel. "It's pretty clear we're not trying to do the film. It wouldn't make any sense to takethe film and put it onstage, because a lot couldn't translate. And it was done so brilliantly, why would you want to do it again?"
Turner, who lives in Manhattan, says that Broadway was always her ultimate goal. "From when I was first in drama school, being big on Broadway was what I yearned for," says the star of "Body Heat" and "Romancing the Stone" on screen and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and Indiscretions onstage. "In film, I love the actor's choices that the camera can highlight. But on film you can never use your full power, your full body or your full voice, the way you can in the theatre. I guess I'm just a stage kid . . . and when I work on Broadway, I can live at home."