BWW Reviews: THE GRADUATE Smartly Staged by The City Theatre

THE GRADUATE is an iconic American film that was a touchstone for an entire generation. It's a coming of age story about Benjamin Braddock's attempt to find his place in the adult world of the sixties. Anyone staging it lives in the shadow of the 1967 film and those indelible images and sounds. To be honest, I went in thinking that I would be hard pressed to think of a cinema piece that cried out less for a stage adaptation than this particular story. However, personally being long removed from both Charles Webb's 1963 novel and the film by Mike Nichols, I found that this piece actually stands on its own. It is quite different from both the novel and the film; but is, in and of itself, an entertaining evening.

The stage version attempts to balance elements of the film and book but there are some problems with Terry Johnson's adaptation. The biggest problem is that his play has no sense of innocence lost. Another problem with Johnson's adaptation is the play's first few moments. The curtain rises on Benjamin, wearing a wet suit, sitting on his bed avoiding his graduation party. Then, almost immediately, Mrs. Robinson arrives for the famous seduction scene, which takes place while his parents and numerous guests are downstairs. This unfortunately reduces Mrs. Robinson to more of a foolish risk taker than a seducer. The scene originally took place in her empty house, not his full one. This change severely undercuts Mrs. Robinson's determination and craftiness later; and I can't understand why the playwright felt the need to make her stupid. Happily, however, the company at City Theatre has been able to rise above the scriptural problems to deliver an enjoyable evening.

A great deal of the visual style and period flavor of this piece are due entirely to the creative team. First off, kudos to Andy Berkovsky for his atmospheric and minimalist set and lighting design which help to anchor the piece in the period. Also, I was impressed by the direction and sound design of Tracy Arnold, who kept the pace moving while rattling the memory with iconic 60's tunes without raiding the Simon & Garfunkel catalogue. There are some pacing issues in the early scenes with Ben and Mrs. Robinson, but they are relatively minor. Also worth note are the wonderful costumes designs of Bert Flanagan.

There is a strong ensemble at work here. Christina Little-Manley and Larry Oliver both strike the perfect notes for Mr. & Mrs. Braddock, with Ms. Manley especially giving a touching turn as she tries to figure out if she is to blame for Benjamin's problems. Scott Poppaw is terrific as Mr. Robinson and handles the character's anger in a totally believable way. Tracy Hurd does a great job with the iconic Mrs. Robinson. I would have liked to see a little more vulnerability and a little less barracuda; however, that may be entirely due to Terry Johnson's writing. Angelina Castillo is excellent as Elaine Robinson. This character is plagued with contradictions due to this adaptation and has some of the show's worst dialogue (most of it new). Castillo still manages to deliver a fine nuanced performance. Also, kudos to Heather Ann Howes who plays a stripper and delivers some of the funniest scenes in the play.

My biggest problem with the piece is in the portrayal Benjamin Braddock. Whether it is due to Terry Johnson's adaptation or not, I can't honestly say. Tim Ashby just seems ill at ease in the role. Instead of a sense of frustration we are given more of a sense of petulance... and that's not very attractive for a character the audience is supposed to be rooting for.

Scriptural issues aside, THE GRADUATE is an enjoyable evening smartly staged by The City Theatre.

THE GRADUATE Adapted for the stage by Terry Johnson, based on the novel by Charles Webb and the screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry

Running time: Two Hours and Fifteen minutes with one intermission.

THE GRADUATE, produced by City Theatre (3823 Airport Blvd. Suite D., Austin, Tx.)
April 17 - May 10, 2015. Contains brief nudity.
Thursdays - Saturdays 8:00 p.m., Sundays 5:30 pm.
General Seating $15. Front/2nd Row Reserved $20-25. Thursday all seats $10. Group and student discounts. For reservations, call 512-524-2870 or e-mail info@citytheatreaustin.org. / www.citytheatreaustin.org



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From This Author Frank Benge