Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Graduate
Mesa Encore Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Life Could Be a Dream, Show Boat, Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End, Gore Vidal's The Best Man


Christian Boden and Kim Lavelle
Photo by Candice Thornton
The 1967 film The Graduate is a classic movie that still stands today as a biting satire on the young, misunderstood and delusional youth of the 1960s and their bored, materialistic, two dimensional and unappreciated parents. Therefore, I'm not quite certain what's to gain from a stage adaptation when the film said exactly what it needed to say under Mike Nichols' expert direction. Terry Johnson adapted the film screenplay, and the 1963 novel by Charles Webb that the film was based on, into a faithful stage version that loses much of the visual starkness of the movie and adds in several new and not exactly necessary scenes. Mesa Encore Theatre's production does a good job of instilling the requisite anti-establishment tone of the piece and, while the entire cast is fine, Kim Lavelle is simply sublime as the sexy seductress Mrs. Robinson.

The plot is a typical coming of age story that centers on recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock who has no idea what to do with his life even though his parents and his parents' friends clearly have his future planned. The bored, alcoholic wife of Benjamin's father's business partner, the seductive Mrs. Robinson, sets her sights on Benjamin, and won't take no for an answer when she states the two should have an affair. When the lost Benjamin, who falls under Mrs. Robinson's spell, realizes he wants more from life, he finds inspiration in Elaine, the innocent daughter of the Robinsons.

What worked on film, with the seductive cinematography and suffocating black and white visual elements, doesn't quite work on stage where the entire show plays more like a flat and two-dimensional character study with dreary one-note characters and short scenes that cause more confusion than clarity, since they don't quite flow together naturally. MET's production also uses an overabundance of set pieces, including heavy furniture and set elements that all have to be moved on and off stage, with four small flats that rotate and are moved throughout as well. These extended scene changes are laborious at times and don't help to connect the disjointed, disparate scenes. A less is more approach would have worked much better and helped to quicken the pace and flow of the piece.

Kim Lavelle projects the perfect balance of Mrs. Robinson's determination and craftiness and her loneliness, with a hint of vulnerability to create a woman you think you immediately know everything about, just from her presence and delivery. Yet there is also nuance and depth to the character that she only occasionally reveals, which makes every scene she is in pop with intrigue and a big shot of heat. Christian Boden is fine as Benjamin. Unfortunately, he starts out at an extremely high level of agitation and annoyance and doesn't quite have anywhere to go from there. While I'm glad no one in this cast is attempting to copy their film counterparts, Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of Benjamin in the movie was infused with many changing layers that aren't exactly present here.

Cheyanne Ballou is good as Elaine, though Johnson's blending of screenplay, novel, and his own additions to the script don't really give her a consistent character to play. In smaller parts, Cliff Williams and Brady Anderson do well in delivering the intentionally one-dimensional roles of Mr. Robinson and Benjamin's father, while Corin Grimm hits just the right notes as Benjamin's mother.

Director Ilana Lydia does an adequate job of attempting to provide some life into this mostly lifeless script and she does some really good work in the scenes that focus on the main characters. Sara Wheatcroft's costume and hair designs are excellent re-creations of the period.

I'm far from a purist and there have been plenty of theatrical adaptations of films and books that have equaled or surpassed the works they were based on. MET's production is fine, with competent direction and a fairly good cast, but in the case of The Graduate film, perhaps they should have left well enough alone, as the stage version unfortunately doesn't add anything new.

Mesa Encore Theatre's The Graduate, through January 28th, 2018, at the Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street in Mesa AZ. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480-644-6500 or at mesaencoretheatre.com.

Director: Ilana Lydia
Stage Manager: Franklin Cerne
Costume, Hair and Makeup Designer: Sara Wheatcroft
Sound Designer: Juliet Wilkins
Set Designer: Paul Filan
Lighting Designer: Harrison Hayes
Props Designer: Ric Alpers

Cast:
Benjamin: Christian Boden
Mrs. Robinson: Kim Lavelle
Elaine: Cheyanne Ballou
Stripper/Receptionist: Lynea Adams
Mr. Robinson: Cliff Williams
Desk Clerk/Priest/Psychiatrist: Vincent Lefland
Mrs. Braddock: Corin Grimm
Mr. Braddock: Brady Anderson


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