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REVIEW: "The Graduate" — Camino Real Playhouse, San Juan Capistrano

The scuba suit. The interrupted wedding. The immortal line, "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me!"

They're all there in Camino Real Playhouse’s funny, poignant, swing-for-the-fences take on the 1967 movie classic, "The Graduate."

There are a few things here quite different from the Dustin Hoffman movie, though. For example, there's a less ambiguous, more hopeful ending. And how's this for less ambiguous: Mrs. Robinson doesn't just strip down to her negligee in that famous movie seduction scene — there, she is completely with nature (a part speedily turned down back then by the more strait-laced Doris Day).

As for Mrs. Robinson: She should probably lay off the cocktails a little.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's get to why Camino Real Playhouse’s "The Graduate" is so terrific: Perfect casting, delicate acting, lots of laughs and a skillfully bittersweet tone from Director Steph N. Davis, who has suddenly become one of my favorite local directors (“Match,” “Almost Maine”). The show, playing through June 30th, has been steadily packing them in the blackbox on Stage II to audiences delight.

“The Graduate” is considered a “high concept stage play,” that is, one that takes a basic story and gives it a memorable twist. In this case, the boy-meets-girl/boy-wins-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-wins-back-girl structure is given new life by the fact that the reason boy-loses-girl in the first place is because he’s been sleeping with her mother! This startling concept is what made the novel and the 1967 film seem scandalous at the time. The winning 1998 play, adapted by Terry Johnson and based on the original novel by Charles Webb, has also given a new generation much to ponder on the wiles of youthful inveiglement.

Johnson’s stage version of “The Graduate” is a bitterly hilarious dark comedy, full of rapid fire dialogue between fascinating and horrifying characters. This play explores family dysfunction, parental expectations, crumbling marriages, and the naive, yet disillusioned, dichotomy of youth, against the shiny backdrop of affluent Southern California in the 1960s.

The action begins in young Benjamin’s bedroom. He looks ridiculous, wearing a wetsuit and snorkel. After some hopeless cajoling from his parents to come downstairs and join his graduation party, the depressed and visibly frustrated Ben tries to retire alone.

No such luck.

Enter Mrs. Robinson — played to the hilt by the honey-throated and oh-so-watchable Rina Holden (“Don’t Dress for Dinner”) — who looks like she’s going to have Benjamin for dinner. As she’s setting the stage for seduction, she leers at the young man and tells him he “looks like a prophylactic.”

With eyes slanted and her voice growing more angular by the minute, Mrs. Robinson practically slices out each syllable to give each cynical quip a metallic sheen. This unrelenting archness is dosed out over the whole evening, even deliciously when she says later of daughter Elaine, "I think Peaches is rebelling."

Growing increasingly uncomfortable as he learns that he is to be the prey of the “most attractive of all my parents’ friends,” Connor Hill, as Ben, is a good study of his more famous film predecessor.

He is a confused young man. Having spent four years achieving a brilliant scholastic record, he finds himself adrift upon graduation, uncertain about his future, disconnected from his purpose, and increasingly alienated from the upper-class, suburban, prearranged world of his parents. The problem is, Ben is a ponderer. His preference is clearly to think out situations and take his time before taking action. And at this point, Ben’s future can be summed up in one word. Plastics.

Everyone has high hopes for this fresh graduate. Which is why everyone is concerned that Ben appears to be wasting all of his time doing “God knows what,” instead of taking the bull by the horns and setting goals.

Fighting panic and boredom, he is deeply conflicted but, after a day or so, ultimately willing when Mrs. Robinson, the unhappily married, alcoholic and dangerously charismatic wife of his father’s business partner, tempts him into an affair.

“Mrs. Robinson, if you don't mind my saying so, this conversation is getting a little strange," the befuddled, disillusioned and disturbed youth protests when his future lover’s devious ministrations become all too clear. Pro that she is, Ms. Holden dazzles through the first act with her sizzling, come-hither charm. Smoking a cigarette and looking like she wants to pounce on her inappropriately-aged lover, she steals the show while on stage.

But Mrs. Robinson is interested in little more than getting Ben into bed. She doesn’t want to discuss it; she doesn’t want to explain it. She just wants to shut up and do it. In fact the way she controls Ben is throug­­­h tactical manipulation: “Ben, would you please get my purse?” “Did you get a room?”

Using a formal, job interview-like approach, he tells her eagerly, "I really would like to thank you for this opportunity." Unfortunately, not only is she interested in exploiting Ben, but also her upbeat, optimistic daughter, Elaine (Rachel Boyle). When Ben suggests seeing Elaine, Mrs. Robinson makes it very clear that Ben may not have her daughter…ever.

The other side of the story’s thematic coin deals with shattered dreams. When Ben finally has a real conversation with Mrs. Robinson, he learns that she was an art major, but became pregnant with Elaine and left her dreams behind. Ben, at first, has no particular aspirations, but when he goes on a date with Elaine, he realizes that he is in love with her. His relationship with Mrs. Robinson, however, makes any hope for a long term relationship with Elaine seem little more than a pipe dream.

Mr. Hill playing the role of Benjamin was quite simply outstanding. He held both the audience and the play in the palm of his hand and ran with it. A familiar artist at Camino Real Playhouse, having performed in last season’s dark comedy,” The Cripple of Inishmaan,” Mr. Hill mesmerized in the lead role with his surefooted take on the self-absorbed, rudderless and somewhat detached college graduate. His transition through every emotion was believable and tangible, adding wonderfully dry spins on his lines that make them even funnier.

Ms. Holden, as the bored, proto-cougar housewife Mrs. Robinson, had all eyes on her when she was on stage. She prowls Ben's bedroom like a predatory shark in a New England coast, sizing him up with unshakable confidence. The bedroom scenes with Ben and Mrs. Robinson crackle with sexual tension. But they're also hilarious with Ben's huge eyes and his frightened, awkward attempts to get out of an uncomfortable situation. Rounding out that famous love triangle is Ms. Boyle’s fresh-faced Elaine, perfect for the role: Innocent, intelligent and bubbling with life — just the sort of girl who would make Ben realize how empty sex is with her mother.

Mr. & Mrs. Braddock (Bob Doll and Alexandra Bank), were the perfect foil to Ben’s star-gazing ways, indicative of suburban conformity and acquiescence expected in 60’s lifestyles. Mr. Doll’s most recent performance at Camino Real Playhouse was “Happy Birthday,” while Ms. Bank appeared in “Show Off!: Noir Man” earlier this year. Mark Schwartz, who plays Mr. Robinson (“The Bad Seed,” “The Best of Bruce: Death Takes a Vacation”), impressed greatly in a wide range of emotional outpouring, including an explosive moment with an axe.

Kenneth Phuong kept busy depicting the Hotel Clerk, the Bartender, a Psychiatrist and a Priest, all with style and flair. And a special mention must be given to the exceptionally prodigious, strip-tease dance performed by Lauren Rhodes during Elaine and Ben’s night out; Ms. Rhodes also plays the receptionist.

Tom Scott’s cleverly designed minimal set made for ease of scene change, although perhaps a tad long with an average of three and a half minutes. The time was well placed though, with 60’s hits playing their full numbers during the transitions, and with many in the audience singing the melodies, launching uproarious laughter, and impromptu karaoke sessions in the darkness between scenes.

Executive Producers are Tom Scott and Beverly Blake; Stage Manager is Kathy Young; Costume Designer is Daisy McGarr, and the Technical Director is Roger Woodcock, with assistance from Mike Keener and Connor Huch. Properties Manager is Kathy Young.

"The Graduate," playing through June 30th at Camino Real Playhouse’s Stage II, is one of the most diverting American comedy plays ever written. It works, not so much because of sight gags or punch lines or other methods of amusement, but because it is very well written, and has a subversive point of view. But good comedy is always naturally subversive, no matter what Doris Day thinks.

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

The Show Report

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