How does Aux Dog Theatre’s thoughtful production of Terry Johnson’s “The Graduate" stack up to the original novella and the unforgettable film version?
‘The Graduate’ Scores High Marks
BY BARRY GAINES
Set in the 1960s, “The Graduate” tells the story of an aimless young college grad, a seductive older woman, that woman’s daughter and the Gordian knot of their forbidden relationships. “Plastics” are the ultimate symbol of sell-out commercialism, and the sky is and isn’t always blue in Aux Dog Theatre’s thoughtful production of Terry Johnson’s “The Graduate.”
Nearly 50 years ago, the late Mike Nichols’ 1967 filmic version of “The Graduate” burst on to the screen. Nominated for Best Picture, Nichols also won the Oscar for best directing. As great as the flick is, Aux Dog’s stage adaptation brings new perspective to audiences, even those who are familiar with the movie.
Based on Charles Webb’s 1963 novella, the narrative is tricky but not all that complicated. Having graduated from a college back East, 20-year-old Benjamin Braddock returns home to upscale southern California and his doting, if clueless, parents. An available grad school scholarship holds little interest for Ben, who’s unsure of his options and desultory about his future.
He doesn’t want a successful but predictable life like his father. Simon & Garfunkel lyrics are showcased in both the film and the play, and they ably express Ben’s disillusioned mindset: “And in the naked light I saw / Ten thousand people, maybe more / People talking without speaking / People hearing without listening / And the people bowed and prayed / To the neon god they made.”
At a celebration given by his parents, Ben encounters Mrs. Robinson, the neglected, alcoholic wife of his father’s best friend. When she gets Ben alone, Mrs. Robinson gets aggressively suggestive, leaving no doubt that she’s available for a sexual relationship.
Both perplexed and aroused, Ben engages in an affair with Mrs. Robinson. In postcoital conversation at a fancy hotel, Ben brings up her daughter Elaine, a college student at Berkeley; the mother’s protective hackles are raised, and she forbids Ben from having any contact with Elaine.
Prodded by his parents, who are blissfully unaware of the affair, Ben takes Elaine out. And then he likes her. No, he loves her. He wants to marry her. Mrs. Robinson is furious. While the film “The Graduate” is visually stunning, this live stage performance directed by Victoria J. Liberatori concentrates on characters and their interactions.
Ryan Jason Cook’s set design boasts a central revolve that allows for rapid-fire scene changes. Sound designer Martin Andrews neatly matches music to mood while Jonathan Lightcap’s lighting design focuses our attention. Kathy Gomez’s costume design transports us back to the mid ’60s.
The performances here are generally strong. Certain ensemble players deserve special mention: Elizabeth Langston, who plays three roles; Tristana Gonzalez, whose striptease is memorable; and J. Ryan Montenery, who brings four characters to life.
Marc Comstock is a convincing Mr. Braddock. His transition from pride to anger is powerful. Lisa Fenstermacher makes her mark as a ditsy, mugging Mrs. Braddock. Lanky thespian Shad Adair plays the relatively uptight Mr. Robinson, who seems willfully insensitive to the needs of both his wife and his daughter.
Kir Kipness’ portrayal of the complicated character of Elaine Robinson emphasizes her distress over making the decision between bending to her parents’ dreams or prioritizing her own desires instead.
Kipness effectively conjures Elaine’s confusion upon meeting the unusual yet strangely appealing Ben Braddock, who’s played by Matt Pruett. His acting highlights both Ben’s self-loathing and illogical optimism, lending him a clueless, cute nature.
This is the third sensual, older woman I’ve seen Bridget Kelly play, and she’s been wonderful as each. Kelly’s Mrs. Robinson is unsatisfied with her marriage of convenience, and her considerable torment evokes our sympathy.
Ben and Mrs. Robinson’s scenes in bed are darkly funny. Kelly skillfully conveys Mrs. Robinson’s vain attempts to maintain some dignity by keeping her daughter away from her clandestine lover.
Who do we root for in this play? Who earns our sympathy? Who do we dislike? Whether you’ve seen the film or not, Aux Dog’s production of “The Graduate” will challenge and amuse.
Barry Gaines, a Professor Emeritus at UNM and Administrator of the American Theater Critics Association, reviews Albuquerque theater for ABQ Free Press.
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