Here's to you: The Graduate gets extra credit for good acting

The more you think about it, the more you realize what a weak play The Graduate really is. Adapted for the stage by Terry Johnson from a 1960s novel by Charles Webb — which in turn became an iconic film starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft — it tells the story of Benjamin, a recent graduate, contemptuous of his wealthy family, bored and drifting, who gets seduced by Mrs. Robinson, an older woman and family friend. When he later falls for her innocent daughter, Elaine, Mrs. Robinson becomes enraged, and all kinds of complications ensue.

Our understanding of this story has changed mightily with changes in the culture. When the movie came out in 1967, there was no need to explain Benjamin's alienation and disaffection. Half the country's young people were in full-fledged rebellion against their parents' conformist lives, inspired by the civil-rights movement and angered by the seemingly endless war in Vietnam. For them, the word "plastics," uttered by an associate of Benjamin's father, carried the full weight of the culture's greedy and pointless materialism. But these days, the plot carries none of these meanings. The economic picture has shifted, and the most offbeat twenty-some-year-old knows that hitting the road with just the money in your pocket — as Benjamin intends to do — would be pure lunacy. Now Benjamin just comes across as surly, lost and unfeeling, and when you hear him exhorting Elaine to come away with him, you want to yell at her to save herself — not that you can figure out why she'd even consider him.

But then, neither the plot nor the characters in this play makes much sense. What drives Mrs. Robinson to seduction? She's clearly not remotely interested in Benjamin as a person. She's equally uninterested in her husband. And she doesn't seem lonely or in desperate need of physical gratification. She's just a sexy bitch making trouble. So why does she suddenly feel so protective of the daughter for whom her feelings are equally cold? As for that daughter, when we first see her, she's babbling about civil rights, Chinese orphans and The Fountainhead, and you can't tell if she's supposed to be conservative, progressive or just plain simple-minded — even though we learn she's been accepted to Berkeley. There's no reason for Benjamin to invite Elaine to a strip club for their first date, unless author Johnson just wanted to stick in some extra sex, all those bed scenes with Mrs. R. being insufficient. (Audiences for both the London and New York productions got to see Kathleen Turner, who played Mrs. Robinson, naked for twenty seconds, so titillation was certainly part of the producers' marketing plan.) And it's hard to believe that Elaine would be so sheltered and naive that the sight of a stripper would cause her to shriek and weep uncontrollably.

Weak as the script is, I'm recommending this Edge Theatre Company production. Even if the plot is cartoonish, at least parts of the script are really droll, and the whole adds up to an amusing evening. More important, some of the roles are very well-played. Patty Ionoff makes Mrs. Robinson poised, impermeable and hard as nails; she's very effective. We first see Adrian Egolf's Elaine in the strip-club scene, where she's annoyingly over-the-top — though it's hard to know what any actor could have done with this dialogue. But pretty soon, Egolf has settled into the role, and her interactions with Benjamin are perfectly paced and sweetly charming. Most of all, you should see The Graduate because of Chandler Darby, who plays the lead and whom I've never seen on a Denver stage before; he's a genuine find for director Rich Yaconis. It's amazing how a compelling actor can bring interest and even a sense of depth to a role that's little more than a sketch as written. Darby's comic timing is impeccable. His Benjamin is cocky and diffident all at the same time, and he has a klutzy physical grace. So even though the character does and says all kinds of dumb, unbelievable things, you find yourself intrigued as he does and says them, watching Darby's face and trying to figure out just what's really going on in his mind.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman