Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2006
Just when you think of the Theater Barn as a nice safe little summer stock place they go and stage The Graduate.
Pop Quiz: What is Mrs. Robinson’s first name?*
It is uttered a few times in the first scene of this play, but despite the physical intimacy of their relationship, Benjamin never addresses her by it.
The Graduate first saw the light of day as a 1963 novel by Charles Webb, who had graduated from Williams College two years earlier. It is a work written by a young person about the experience of being young. Very young. So young that grown-ups, even when you are stark naked under the covers with them, don’t have first names. Never trust anyone over 30.
Lawrence Turman considered the 1967 film version he produced to be 90-percent faithful to the book. This recent stage adaptation by Terry Johnson replaces a few scenes from the book that didn’t make it into the movie, but the film has so far eclipsed the novel in popularity that most people attending this show will consider it an adaptation from the movie. They expect their Benjamins to be brunet and slightly ethnic looking (in the novel the Braddock’s are blond and WASP-y) and they expect their Mrs. Robinsons lusciously ripe like Anne Bancroft. Kathleen Turner played the role on stage in both the 2000 London production and the 2002 New York incarnation, which also starred Jason Biggs of American Pie fame as Benjamin and Clueless Alicia Silverstone as Elaine.
Johnson’s script is decidedly thin. Because the story is so familiar you have a chance to take a close look at the main characters, and they don’t stand up well to that scrutiny. Just what is at the root of Benjamin’s endless ennui? Why is Mrs. Robinson such a bitch? And just what does anyone see in the vacant and ditsy Elaine?
What saves the Theater Barn production, directed by Tony Capone, are both the solid performances rendered by Michael Frishman as Benjamin, Petrina McCarron as Elaine, Gloria Glynn as Mrs. Robinson, and John Philip Cromie as the much wronged Mr. Robinson, (Pop Quiz: Who played Mr. Robinson in the movie?**), and the audacity of the Barn to mount such a sexually explicit show. A grown-up show for a grown-up audience. Do you think it will work? Well, it does.
Frishman’s Benjamin is aimless, feckless, graceless, and pointless, which is quite funny and also damned annoying. Maybe it is because I am considerably over 30, or maybe it is because I remember the 1960’s and I didn’t like them, but just what is Benjamin’s problem with the fine education his parents have provided for him? I can understand his rejection of the phoniness and materialism that his parents represent, but what’s so bad about a good education and the opportunities it affords you to enjoy life?
Glynn is a very, very beautiful woman. And she plays Mrs. Robinson’s icy anger beautifully as well. Yes, she stands on stage stark naked (the audience only sees her from the back) and slinks about matter-of-factly in some very attractive lingerie. She is less effective in her scenes with McCarron. Mrs. Robinson really is a dreadful mother, and it is hard to believe that Elaine turned out as sane as she did and that she doesn’t hate and resent her mother much more than she seems to, even at the end when she overhears her mother’s true feelings about her.
McCarron does an amazing job with a shallow and poorly drawn character. I liked her Elaine and empathized with her. If anyone is the victim in this story it is her, moving as she does from a childhood with an abusive and alcoholic mother to a lifetime of whiny wandering with Benjamin.
The adults in The Graduate are barely more than cartoon characters, but Cromie gives Mr. Robinson real depth. I felt for the man. That little brat Benjamin takes everything from him – his wife, his daughter, his good name – everything that Hal Robinson has spent his lifetime loving and working for.
Dyann Arduini as Benjamin’s mother presents a lovely caricature of the perfect 1960’s California housewife. She is rightly confused by Benjamin’s bad behavior, and miserable that the Freudian psychobabble of the day makes his problems all her fault. Alas, Dan Kelly is in completely over his head as Mr. Braddock, barely managing emotion in his line readings, even in the scene where he strikes Frishman.
I usually really like Abe Phelps’ sets, but this one, basically one long wall decorated with big slabs of bad 1960’s wallpaper, left me absolutely cold. It looked cheap and as if not a lot of thought or creativity had gone into its creation. Then I read a couple of reviews of the Broadway production and realized that this was a Theater Barn-sized adaptation of what New York audiences saw. Yikes!
There is a nice soundtrack of ‘60’s music to cover the set changes, and yes, they finally do play “Mrs. Robinson” at the final curtain.
As far as this being an adult show for adult audiences, I say fine. There is plenty of family-friendly entertainment out there. The story of The Graduate is familiar enough that audiences know what they’re getting when they walk in the theatre. There is nudity and near-nudity and simulated sex. Mrs. Robinson is an alcoholic bitch. Benjamin takes Elaine to a strip-club on their first date. It’s all right there, up close and personal in the intimate confines of the Theater Barn. Whether or not you choose to attend is your personal choice, but I am glad to see the Barn establishing itself as more than just a safe little summer theatre. Last year’s production of The Full Monty, this show, and the production of Urinetown scheduled for August put the Barn on the map as a theatre that doesn’t assume that everyone in the world is a cock-eyed optomist.
Coo coo ca-choo, Mrs. Robinson.
The Graduate runs through July 9 at the Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. Performances are on Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 & 8:30 p.m., and a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20.00 for all evening performances, and $18.00 for the Sunday matinee. The show runs an hour and fifty minutes with one intermission and is definitely rated "R." Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
** Murray Hamilton
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006