Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of Hershey Felder, Beethoven
Under the deft direction of Jeanie K. Smith, Palo Alto Players' The Graduate pays just enough homage to fondly remembered scenes (and sounds) of the seminal movie by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry while still returning to the original novel by Charles Webb for some climactic twists and turns that will surprise but still delight the film's worshipers.
"I have this feeling of grotesqueness when I even think of leaving this room." Such is Benjamin's reaction to his parents' pleas for him leave his bedroom to go downstairs for a party celebrating his recent, Ivy League graduation. His blasé, blank-faced pouting about his post-college prospects is suddenly interrupted when a best friend of his parents, Mrs. Robinson, barges into his bedroom, begins to undress, and suggests a tryst. Shocked (actually, terrified) at her boldness and disillusioned with his prospective life as a teacher, Benjamin announces to his parents, "I'm through with all this ... I don't know what it is, but I'm sick of it." Benjamin then heads out at 9 p.m. "across the country ... around the world" with no luggage and only ten bucks in his pocket.
Eight days later, and too much time with the dull, every day world of farmers and firefighters, Benjamin finds his way back home and soon into a hotel room with Mrs. Robinson. The lessons he learns under the sheets suddenly make his life much more enjoyableuntil his parents and Mr. Robinson (but definitely not Mrs. Robinson) arrange a date with the Robinsons' daughter and Berkeley senior, Elaine. And then, the real drama and fun of The Graduate actually begins.
Part of the brilliance of Jeanie Smith's direction is her ability to approach the play with tongue often fully implanted in cheek. A prime example is the undercover sex scenes between the Mrs. R and Benjamin that are almost slapstick in nature and capped with the repeated starring role of a cigarette. Those same scenes have a hilarious and uncanny resemblanceclearly due to a director's touchto a certain honeymoon night to follow much later in the play.
That same directorial sense of humor plays out in the way Ms. Smith helps Max Tachis orchestrate his role as Benjamin. Often more like a gangly, awkward teenager just entering puberty than an award-winning college graduate, his Benjamin has a voice that cracks after rising a couple of extra octaves, a body with arm-and-leg movements that are at times much like the scarecrow of Oz, and a naiveté that is so unbelievable to be totally charming. That he is boy-like sweet and lovable in both appearance and presence just makes him even more a delightful casting choice as the guy whose virginity is lost to an alcoholic but sexy friend of his parents.
In words, there is hardly any way to do justice to the dozens of ways Betsy Kruse Craig uses her lips to create a disdainful, condescending smirk to signal her total confidence and clear superiority as she tempts and teases Benjamin into bed. Her Mrs. Robinson is calculating, selfish, and abhorrent. She knows it; and she couldn't care less, wearing such qualities as a badge of honor. She is also sassy, sensual and sexy, in a middle-age sort of way, making Ms. Craig's casting choice another stroke of genius.
Completing the emerging love triangle once she enters the action as Elaine Robinson is Michelle Skinner. At times the inexperienced, risk-averse girl-next-door type and at other times, a take-charge, no-fools-tolerated determiner of her own destiny, this Elaine is well sculpted by both actress and director. Her decisive transformation and strength of character is even more key to the play's script than the film's.
A bevy of supporting characters produce their own laughs, over and again, in ways that do not happen as much in the film. Prime among these is Raegena Raymond-Brunker as Mrs. Braddock, Benjamin's mother, who often appears having just stepped out of the black-and-white screen of a mid-sixties, family TV sitcom. She is Reader's Digest informed and sitting precariously on the border between Lucy-Ricardo-ditzy and June-Cleaver-perfect. Ms. Raymond-Brunker finds a host of ways to tee-hee and boo-hoo, as well as to look confused, amazed, appalled, and mom-proud.
Shawn Bender's Mr. Braddock tries his best to be parental firm and tough on his lazy, prodigal son; but the loving, maybe slightly envious heart inside the firm exterior keeps showing through. As Mr. Robinson, Mark Novak not only pulls off with full aplomb the famous "plastics" line, he is absolutely terrific as the increasingly apoplectic and yet always funny father of Elaine. Adam Currier, among other roles, gets to be a critical part of one of the play's funniest scenes as the hotel clerk checking Benjamin in for his first afternoon delight. One almost expects Tom Farley's psychiatrist with clients sitting on bean-bags to be wearing a tie-dyed robe and saying a meditative "ohm." Karen Sanders has a breast-swinging good time as a stripper.
The look of the 1960s that some of us remember only too well is well represented in the large, layered, wood-paneled walls of Nikolaj Sorenson's scenic design. Gordon Smith's sound design brings back memories for many in the audience, from the initial scuba-breathing echoing throughout the theatre in Benjamin's opening scene to the snippets of Simon and Garfunkel so cleverly picked and positioned between the play's scenes. Kathleen Qiu's costumes help complete the '60s erafrom Mrs. Robinson's short, form-fitting outfits and choices of undergarments to the frumpy, flowered skirts of Mrs. Braddock that have J.C. Penney written all over them.
"Cute" is a word that keeps coming to my mind as I relive The Graduate as produced by Palo Alto Players and Jeanie Smitha "cute" that is meant as a total compliment for how chuckling funny, genuinely heartfelt, and absolutely entertaining this stage version of the still-famous film is. This is never totally the movie as we remember it, but it is also just enough so as to make all the new and surprising curves and switchbacks of plot much more appetizing and satisfying.
The Graduate continues through July 2, 2017, by Palo Alto Players at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are available at www.paplayer.org or by calling 650-329-0891.