Fifty-one years ago, one of the most talked-about films of all time — bolstered by Simon & Garfunkel’s atmospheric soundtrack — was released in “The Graduate,” whose screenwriters, Buck Henry and Calder Willingham, based the iconic and Shakespearean-inspired narrative about a young adult becoming a man on the original 1963 novel by Charles Webb. Benjamin Braddock, played by a fresh-faced Dustin Hoffman, experiences existential uncertainty following college, before being seduced by the still very sexually viable Mrs. Robinson, who is indelibly portrayed by the late Anne Bancroft. It is an outrageously enthralling plot arc for it is in some ways unspeakable, yet thrilling for Ben, who is thrust into a steamy affair with uproarious undertones. As angst gives way to the beginnings of self-assuredness, Ben discovers his virility via Mrs. Robinson, though is forbidden from pursuing his true affection — Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross).
In 2000, Terry Johnson’s adaptation of “The Graduate” premiered as a stage play by very much echoing the spirit of the film with some notable exceptions. It isn’t until now, however, that there is a Mrs. Robinson to match Bancroft’s. Helped by the superb direction by Michael Matthews, Academy-Award nominee and “Working Girl” movie legend, Melanie Griffith, proves to be a working woman more impressive than ever, ageless and unfadingly sultry in her star power, as she leads a terrific sixteen-person cast at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach, CA, through March 25th.
The superbly apropos costumes by Kate Bergh, and intentionally modest mid-twentieth century scenic design by Stephen Gifford, provides for an accurate and intimate look into the relationship between two upper-middle class families – the Braddocks and the Robinsons, who appear to be happy on the outside, but are mostly beset by piled-high crises on the inside. This all unfolds at a brisk two hours, paced meticulously well by Matthews, who cleverly uses choreographed and calling-to-attention 60’s musical transitions (sound design is by Mike Ritchey) assisted by his focused ensemble cast.
Ben Braddock, portrayed by relative newcomer Nick Tag, demonstrates why he is a precocious actor despite being professionally involved in theater for only two years. Skilled at sustaining the energy he brings to each objective, Tag is very convincing at communicating his character’s anxiousness and struggle with coming into his own, which is expedited by Melanie Griffith’s Mrs. Robinson.
Griffith offers a distinctive performance that is nuanced and rife with understated subtleties. Her sugary and lilting voice lures us in, just as it seduces Ben, yet there is also a declarative resoluteness to her words that can be just as seriously foreboding as they are seemingly polite. Even more so, Griffith is ruthlessly funny at times, thanks to her calm and effortless delivery. For instance, just her mere facial expressions alone, during a scene at the hotel concierge desk when Ben is frantically contemplating booking a room, sell the oddly endearingly nature of the moment – which is also helped by Tag and Joey Fabrizi (hotel clerk). On the other hand, when Ben crosses her, we know that Griffith’s Mrs. Robinson isn’t to be messed with either, no matter how courteous she comes across when rejecting the notion of Ben pursuing her daughter.
Martha Magruder fills Elaine Robinson’s shoes with a staid innocence that is secretly chomping at the bit to break out of her shell. Magruder is delightfully likable as Elaine, especially when she is trying to process how she can possibly be attracted to the suddenly nihilistic Ben or make sense of the sabotaged date she finds herself in – replete with some sensual (and fun) absurdity effectively conveyed by Taylor Rene LaBarbera’s role as a stripper. Though where Magruder really shines is in the rapid-fire back and forth that her character has with Tag’s Ben at UC Berkeley, when he is insistent about marrying her, and she adorably responds with reasons for why she shouldn’t.
Elaine’s father, Mr. Robinson (Geoffrey Lower), is in an unenviable position, as he watches his world fall asunder and is helpless to do anything about it. Lower’s high-energy characterizations as Mr. Robinson are tremendous – as one who is overcompensatingly bullish for his powerlessness in his own home, and as a scorned, ax-wielding man with nothing to lose. Lower smoothly stays within the boundaries of dark comedy the whole time, and while we may laugh at his persona for being pathetic and milquetoast, we understand that his predicament is a tragic one.
Ben’s parents – Mr. and Mrs. Braddock – played by Richard Burgi and Valerie Perri, respectively, are absorbingly believable as a couple who can’t be faulted for loving and being there for their beleaguered son in the only way they know how. It’s interesting to watch Burgi’s Mr. Braddock – a man’s man and someone who would’ve been a great fit on “Mad Men” – come to his son’s aid even if it’s done with intermittent bursts of vexation. Perri’s Mrs. Braddock, however, has less of a grip on the abrupt happenings involving her son. That said, Perri is both sweet and funny in her concern for Ben, which culminates in one of the more memorable scenes at the office of the psychiatrist (Gregory Butler), when she earnestly pours out her worries about Ben while uncomfortably trying to negotiate her body vis-à-vis the chocolate-colored beanbags she and her family are uncomfortably reclined on.
Certainly, as in the film, the individuals’ impassioned motivations come to a head in the church, leaving in its wake a very bewildered priest (John Massey). But, what makes Johnson’s adaptation and Matthews’ vision of “The Graduate” a highly recommended play is that it’s applaudingly not a carbon copy of the movie, and rather keeps us on our toes, surprising us in regard to how the characters’ intense wants are displayed and how the well-known account is uniquely carried out. It is a production that compellingly envelops us into its suburban stupor.
For more information about “The Graduate” at the Laguna Playhouse, please visit lagunaplayhouse.com