Ten years ago, Kathleen Turner and Matthew Rhys opened “The Graduate” onstage in London. The 1967 movie version with Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman was a cultural phenomenon across the pond and in the United States.
Turner, who was in her mid-40s then, made news by appearing nude. In a radio drama version, she and Rhys this week reprise their roles for L.A. Theatre Works.
It’s recorded for radio, so they can keep their clothes on. But the loss of physicality has placed Rhys at odds with such a familiar script.
"The moments where we’ve been going through the script where I’ve slightly tripped or hurdled is where something still embedded in me was so very physical is no longer possible," says Rhys. "So as Kathleen says you sort of have to do something else with your voice."
"A lot of this was physical," Turner says, laughing. "Yes, there was an awful lot of physical involved," Rhys shoots back.
Mrs. Robinson seduces a young college graduate named Benjamin Braddock. Today we’d call her a cougar. The show enjoyed a successful two-year run on London’s West End that prompted a request to move the show to New York.
Turner said “no.” "It’s just not worth it – the junk we’ll get, the crap we’ll get for doing this as hypocritical as those Americans are about sex, I don’t need this," says Turner.
"So I said no, no, no. Then, about a year or so later, I got a script and it described the character, the woman, as 37 but still attractive. And that made me so mad! I called him up, I called up Terry Johnson and said I’ll do it. Still attractive, huh? OK! Watch this!"
"The resounding boom of the gauntlet being thrown down by Miss Turner," says Rhys, "was heard by the upper echelons of New York state."
A decade later, it’s natural that the actors might regard their characters through a different lens.
"He was a wee child and such a little baby boy," says Turner. "Yes, I’ve grown up so much now," says Rhys, laughing.
"Kathleen can get away with playing Mrs. Robinson now, but I don’t think I could get away with playing a 21-year-old." Turner responds, "Not likely!"
"You can still be my Mrs. Robinson," Rhys tells Turner.
"Oh, thank you, darling."
Rhys admits thinking differently about Benjamin now. "I think I approached him, as was written, as a kind of angry young man when I did it back in my twenties. And now, I think I’m a little gentler with him."
"When we created the piece," says Turner, "I remember thinking how deadened she was in so many ways, by the alcohol, by the lack of stimulus in her life, by the lack of love in her marriage. She operates so much in a vacuum that there is a deadened quality to her.
"There always was to me. And that’s come right back, I mean, for the same reasons. This woman is extremely isolated and makes no effort to get herself out of it, of course."
The son of Anne Bancroft, Max Brooks, told me recently that people projected Mrs. Robinson onto his mother’s public persona – even though it didn’t reflect her at all. Kathleen Turner finds that people consider her a strong, intelligent woman with a sense of humor. But, "Yeah, I think that as the years go on, the qualities that are constant in the characters that one portrays, it becomes clearer and clearer who you are simply by the fact that if they are always there, then they are indeed in you, yes," says Turner.
Rhys and Turner's co-stars in "The Graduate" include Bruce Davison, John Getz and Linda Purl. The first of five performances is tonight at the Skirball Center.