The Graduate – current presentation of the the White Rock Players Club at the Coast Capital Playhouse – is billed as a comedy, and it does have its quota of chuckle-worthy moments.
But at the heart of Terry Johnson’s 2000 stage adaptation of the era-defining 1960s movie, and its source novella, is a sad little story – of roads taken and choices regretted – that is really not that funny at all.
Everyone knows that the catalyst of this plot is the misguided affair between alcoholic, sexually voracious Mrs. Robinson (Lori Watt) and young Californian graduate Benjamin Braddock (Thomas Gage), hamstrung by post-college malaise.
Even though the play takes place in the early-1960s, the older woman-younger man theme still resonates, of course. And dressed up – or I should say undressed – with some nudity, and with some situations amped-up to a ludicrous max, the show makes a fair stab at representing itself as saucy adult farce.
Indeed, a capacity audience at last Saturday’s performance certainly seemed to be enjoying it on that level – and clearly the nudity, which goes beyond anything previously chanced on the White Rock stage, is no big deal in an era of made-for-cable series.
But I find some of the strongest moments in this production, directed by Kate Stadel, are quieter two-character scenes that bring out more wistful themes of the play.
While it’s called The Graduate, Johnson’s script is really about two graduates, Benjamin and Elaine – the Robinsons’ daughter – with whom Benjamin finds himself falling in love, even while trying to extricate himself from his affair with her mother.
While Elaine is still attending college and Benjamin is dodging graduate school, the most significant graduation they have to experience is a necessary transition from childhood roles, habits and dependencies to carve their own identities as adults.
Both, during the course of the play, must come to terms with the fact that their parents are embarrassingly human, and that they can’t – and shouldn’t – rely on their guidance any more.
In this context, Janine Guy’s sincere, thoughtful portrayal of the innocently empathetic Elaine – who finds herself oddly drawn to Benjamin, in spite of any number of reasonable objections – is one of the more likable anchor-points of the production.
I wish I could say the same for Gage’s Benjamin – but that’s really not his fault. He’s a good actor, clearly capable of depicting the required emotions, but possibility miscast in this role, which seems to require a personality of a particular charisma (like Dustin Hoffmann in the original) that allows us to forgive any misdeed.
The problem is that The Graduate is a product of an era when “all’s fair in love and war” was still taken as a maxim, and a fictional character declaring undying love was given a free pass for any behaviour. Although times were changing, it was still considered acceptable, even cute, for a male hero to indulge in what would now be rightly condemned as stalking and emotional blackmail.
For this play to really work, the audience still, somehow, has to find something to like about Benjamin. But, aside from the fact that his emotions for Elaine have forced him out of an unattractive lethargy, there’s still not much to admire about someone who insists on being such a jerk.
Another downside about the performance I saw was an oddly disjointed, seriously desultory pace, particularly in the first act, that seemed to suggest that lines were being stepped on or missed entirely and effects and music were being miscued.
It was hard to imagine the scenes being directed that way, and yet there seemed to be no overt indications of in-the-wings disaster (which would win it an automatic pass from someone who has experienced his share of them in community theatre).
On the plus side, Watt’s Mrs. Robinson has an unexpectedly endearing quality for a character that Benjamin ultimately refers to as a “bitch.” Although the performance is not entirely sure-footed in the showier aspects of Benjamin’s seduction, she is convincing in depicting Mrs. Robinson’s pragmatism.
She’s also effective in finding a sadness and underlying fragility in the role – particularly in quieter scenes when she tells Benjamin the circumstances of Elaine’s conception and, later, when she coaches a befuddled Elaine on minimizing the effects of drunkenness.
Katherine Morris is excellent in portraying the sugary, smothering quality of Benjamin’s mom, while Kerry Van Sickle, while not as assured a player, has effective moments as the seriously disappointed Mr. Braddock.
Kimball Finegan seems – similarly – a little uncertain as Mr. Robinson, although he does find good moments in an interesting arc in which he progresses from Mr. Braddock’s glad-handing business partner of the first scenes to the enraged axe-wielding father-of-the-bride of the second act.
In what amount to bit roles, supporting players Jake Anthony (as a priest and barman) Kevin Sloan (as a strip club creep and a hotel clerk), Paul Ferancik (as a fellow strip club patron and a psychiatrist) and Erin Marshall (double-cast, with Vanessa Klein, as a blasé stripper) succeed in making their cameos memorable for the most part.
But while I liked Stadel’s suggestion of changing time and place through lighting and having Paul Ledaire’s flexible set units shifted in the background, an unexpected reprise of the stripper’s dance to cover one scene change seemed to distort the importance of the role to the play. I’m no prude, but this directorial touch came across as gratuitous at best – certainly unnecessary to advancing plot or characterization.
The Graduate continues at Coast Capital Playhouse until Feb. 25.