The Graduate at Ivoryton Playhouse Earns High Honors
By Amy J. Barry
It’s not easy, in a stage production, to compete with a movie that was so successful that its starring character -- Mrs. Robinson -- became an American icon, and its theme song by the same name (written by Paul Simon) was a top hit of the baby boomer generation.
More than 30 years later when The Graduate, Mike Nichol’s cult classic film based on the novel by Charles Webb, starring Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman, played London’s West End and then Broadway, the reviews were generally lukewarm.
But Lawrence Thelen, who directs the Ivoryton Playhouse production, has done a superb job interpreting Terry Johnson’s theatrical adaptation of the film, maintaining the dark edge of the movie and playing to the strengths of live theater by keeping it simple and emphasizing the surreal quality of the tour de force.
Thelen, along with an excellent cast, has also managed to make the central coming-of-age theme of the show relevant in spite of today’s technological advances (what if Mrs. Robinson had a cell phone?) and more relaxed sexual mores.
Luke Guldan is well suited as Benjamin Braddock, who has returned to his parents’ cushy Southern California home after graduating from an East Coast college.
Guldan captures Benjamin’s conflicted, confused, youthful cynicism about the future, hiding upstairs from a graduation party, his anxiety exacerbated when pompous Mr. Robinson (Peter Cormican) delivers the movie’s famous line, “I’ve got one word for you, son: Plastics.”
Benjamin is pushed further to the brink when Mrs. Robinson begins to seduce the young innocent, asking him to unzip her dress and then coming out of the bathroom baring all -- kudos to the Playhouse for taking a risque risk with its audience instead of playing it safe.
Judith Lightfoot Clarke delivers a sexy, sophisticated Mrs. Robinson with droll humor as she ensnares Benjamin in her web, breaking down his resistance, and manipulating him into a shocking affair with a woman as old as his own mother.
Despite his parents’ nagging him to go to graduate school, Ben leaves home to “drop out” and connect “with simple, honest, ordinary people, who don’t have big houses and swimming pools.”
He lasts eight days before returning to his parent’s house as distraught as when he left. He picks up the affair with Mrs. Robinson, which is further complicated when he takes up with the Robinson’s fresh-faced, naive daughter Elaine, who’s the polar opposite of her mother.
Jess Brown pleasantly portrays the young women whose alcoholic mother gave her a bartender’s guide for her 11th birthday, showing a feisty, spirited side, despite her mother’s characterization of her as weak and fearful.
Rik Walter and Victoria Bundonis as Benjamin’s perplexed parents nicely round out the cast.
The one plot complication that really shows The Graduate’s age is that Elaine has only two choices and they are both marriage -- either to the unhinged Benjamin or to Carl, played by Jeffrey F. Wright II -- a nice, boring medical student with a great future. Remaining single at 21 isn’t an option.
Enhancing the sense of time and place is a sleek modern wood-paneled set by Tina Louise Jones, mood setting lighting by Marcus Abbott, ‘60s style costumes by Lisa Marie Harry, and Tate R. Burmeister’s wonderfully selected sound track of Simon and Garfunkle songs, nostalgically punctuating the scene changes.
The Graduate runs through May 6 at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street in Ivoryton. Tickets are available by calling the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or online at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org. Note: For mature audiences -- performance contains brief nudity and sexual content.
This review appeared in Shore Publishing community weeklies and online Zip06.com and theday.com.