Say the words The Graduate and the first thing likely popping into your head will be the voices of Simon and Garfunkel singing “Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson” or perhaps “The Sounds Of Silence.” Then there’s the famous movie poster of a very young Dustin Hoffman gazing at Anne Bancroft’s stockinged leg filling the foreground.  And who can forget Hoffman’s semi-incredulous, “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me,” one of the American Film Institute’s 100 most famous movie lines … ever.

Before the Mike Nichols’ 1967 film classic, however, there was Charles Webb’s 1963 novel, and much more recently Kathleen Turner starred in the 2002 Broadway adaptation by Terry Johnson, making headlines with her much trumpeted nude scene, said to have contributed to the show’s brisk ticket sales.

Now, the Broadway stage version of The Graduate is getting its first Los Angeles 99-seat production, thanks to West Coast Ensemble, and a smashing one it is. The nude scene remains, this time with both Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin Braddock doing The Full Monty, and a pastie-wearing tassel-twirling stripper thrown in for good measure.  But this Graduate is so smart and funny, adroitly written and deliciously acted that nudity is far from its biggest selling point.

First of all, there’s Johnson’s script, about as perfect an example of how to adapt a novel or film for the stage as you’re likely to find.  In this case, it’s both novel and screenplay that form the basis for Johnson’s script, with many of screenwriters Calder Willingham and Buck Henry’s now famous lines intact, in addition to scenes not in the film, making the stage version a treat in its own right.

The play begins with almost 20-year-old Benjamin (Ben Campbell) sitting in semi-darkness on his bed wearing a Neoprene diving suit, a university graduation present from his proud father who at the moment is none too happy with his son.  You see, although Benjamin has followed his dad’s instructions and “put the suit on,” he’s “lost the inclination” to come downstairs and show it off to the assembled graduation party guests. Despite being the recipient of the Frank Halpingham Education Award (=two years of grad school completely gratis) and having been accepted to Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, young Ben seems adrift.  Film aficionados will recall family friend Mr. Robinson’s “one word” of advice to him—“plastics,” and though Ben’s mother is certain that her boy will go into teaching, Ben himself feels that his four years of college have “added up to nothing.” At this point in his life, Benjamin Braddock seems about as goalless as a young man could possibly be.

Left alone in his room by his elders, who should arrive to surprise Ben but Mrs. Robinson (Kelly Lloyd), Mr. Robinson’s curvaceous and oh-so-sophisticated wife, feeling a little unsteady and in need of a place to lie down.  Though Ben informs her that the spare room is at the end of the hall, Mrs. Robinson seems inclined to stay where she is, prompting Ben to utter the famous “trying to seduce me” line. Of course she is, despite her insistence that she only wants him to unzip her dress (in order for her to lie down, or so she says).  Following a quick trip downstairs to fetch Mrs. Robinson’s purse, Ben returns to find her in the bathroom—but not for long.  Before you can say “full frontal,” the voluptuous Mrs. Robinson has emerged in all her birthday-suit glory fulfilling this sex-obsessed heterosexual virgin’s fantasy. Only Mr. Robinson’s sudden arrival sends his wife scurrying back into the bathroom for cover—and postpones their first tryst to a later date.

Johnson’s script includes of course the famous hotel lobby scene (who can forget screenwriter Henry’s appearance as the desk clerk?) leading to the first of many afternoon delights for the horny teen and his enthusiastic sex tutor.  Complications ensue, of course, with the appearance of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson’s lovely daughter Elaine, and if lust has been on his mind with Mrs. Robinson (Ben never calls her by whatever her first name is), it’s true love for Ben from the moment he lays eyes on Elaine’s blue-eye-shadowed baby blues.

Will Ben convince Elaine that he is the man of her dreams? How will Ben’s parents and Mrs. Robinson’s husband react when they learn of Ben and Mrs. Robinson’s shenanigans?  Will Elaine find it in her heart to forgive Ben, and dare to say “I don’t” on her wedding day to someone else? 

Anyone who’s seen the movie or read the novel knows the answers to these questions. In West Coast Ensemble’s production, getting there is all the fun. 

Casting just the right actors is paramount to the success of any production of The Graduate.  After all, Hoffman and Bancroft are about as hard an act to follow as they come, but in Campbell and Lloyd, director Jules Aaron (at the top of his craft here) has struck pay dirt.

Campbell has a great look, at once handsome and geeky, which makes Mrs. Robinson’s attraction to him, and her confidence in her ability to control the affair, absolutely believable. He also has Ben’s deadpan delivery down pat (after all, this is a young man who is bored with just about everything in his life).  Still, this is a performance which is the farthest thing from one-note, Campbell creating a fully three-dimensional character whose depth is revealed layer by layer as the play progresses.

Lloyd is equally splendid, and anyone who’s seen her work in WCE’s Music From A Sparkling Planet or Dinner With Friends will be stunned by how completely the actress disappears into Mrs. Robinson’s skin.  The mid-1960s wig helps, of course, as do Shon LeBlanc’s period-perfect costumes, but the transformation is almost entirely Lloyd’s, her own brand of deadpan the perfect complement to Campbell’s.  The two have great chemistry together, and are clearly having fun in a montage of the many sexual positions the couple find to express their lust for each other.

Jerry Lloyd is a dynamo as Mr. Braddock, his steel-gray military haircut and bearing making one almost expect Ben to salute him each time he enters a room, and Jim Keily is just as dynamic as Mr. Robinson, a man with such a great sales pitch he could get you to buy the shirt off your own back. Cindy Yantis channels Donna Reed and just about every other sitcom housewife and mother of the era as a very funny Mrs. Braddock.  Bill Tigue delights in the plum role of the desk clerk, doubling amusingly as a barfly.  Sara J. Stuckey plays a trio of roles with a special tip of the hat for her gutsy, tassel-twirling, out-and-out hilarious turn as the stripper who puts a bit of a damper on Ben and Elaine’s first date.  Chris Muto does well as a barman and a priest. In the role of Elaine, Michelle Exarhos has the right look and voice, but her performance could benefit from greater spontaneity. 

Stephen Gifford’s set is the epitome of ingenious, classy design, its wooden panels moving in and out and around to transform themselves quickly into a bedroom, a hotel lobby, a bar, a church, and other locales. Lighting designer J. Ken Inasy’s does his accustomed outstanding work, with special snaps to the underwater lighting in the first scene. The script’s clever blackouts also benefit greatly from Inasy’s imaginative design.  Rebecca Kessin’s sound design recreates the mid-sixties with a great selection of hits by The Supremes, The Mamas And The Papas, and other stars of the era.

Any production of The Graduate is likely to draw an audience from its name value alone. Add to that the fact that West Coast Ensemble has put together an all-around sensational production and this could easily be one of the company’s most popular shows ever.

Here’s to you, The Graduate!

West Coast Ensemble, El Centro Theater, 800 N. El Centro Ave., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
February 13, 2009
                                             Photos: Ty Donaldson

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