“The Graduate was published 50 years ago and it’s still shockingly relevant today,” said actor Darren Richardson. “People graduate from college and they’re lucky to get a job at Starbucks or Borders.”
“And more women want to sleep with their neighbors,” added another panelist in a pre-performance discussion about the 1963 novel by Charles Webb, the 1967 movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft , and the 2000 Broadway production.
Sleeping with one’s neighbors? Recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock (Brian Tichnell) has moved back home. Completely disillusioned, he doesn’t like what he learned, doesn’t like the shallowness of his upper-middle class community, and he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. At his graduation party a neighbor, Mrs. Robinson (Heidi Dippold), tries to seduce him but he retreats, only to call her a few days later. They promptly meet at a hotel.
The hotel scene is spellbinding, with great dialog as directed by Brian Kite. Tichnell’s quick questions and deadpan expression are slightly reminiscent of those of Dustin Hoffman, but they are only flourishes, not borrowed technique. He comes across as appalled with himself for thinking of Mrs. Robinson as a MILF (Mothers I’d Like to F***) but also as eager for some practice. As the sophisticated cougar, Dippold maintains a boozy, “who cares” attitude, using a bored tone of voice and an indifferent turn of her blonde chignon.
Soon Ben falls in love with the Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Jill Renner), but Mrs. Robinson is adamantly against it, whether because she wants him for herself or because she thinks he’s a scumbag for getting involved with her in the first place. Mr. Robinson is pleased until he finds out about his wife’s relationship with Ben. Then he’s furious, but with one expert move of his hand, actor Matthew Arkin removes and twirls his glasses as if to say that he might consider it.
That is what’s unique about L.A. Theatre Works. It’s a radio show, but the actors are not in a studio hunched around a table with their scripts talking into microphones suspended from the ceiling. They speak into stand-up mics on the stage and use facial and physical expression that only the live audience can see.
Mr. and Mrs. Braddock make a dapper couple with high hopes for their intelligent son. Diane Adair is utterly convincing as Mrs. Braddock, and doubles as a world-weary stripper when Ben takes Elaine to a dive bar. Tom Virtue is physically expressive as Mr. Braddock, seething visibly when Ben wouldn’t go downstairs to his own graduation party.
Ben has no desire to accept a scholarship for a graduate degree in teaching and becomes increasingly obsessed with Elaine. He visits her at U.C. Berkeley and asks her to marry him, only to find out that she’s engaged. Renne expertly portrays a mix of repulsion to and interest in in Ben’s advances and excels at expressing her liberal ideals.
While, refreshingly enough, Ben may not settle on a career, he grows up during the show. Costume, Hair, and Makeup Designer Rebecca Guzzi makes his character look less and less boyish and more and more handsome, so much so that I had to do a double-take toward the end.
Sound design by Josh Bessom was one of the most intriguing parts of the performance but did not distract from the action. As a radio production, they use live sound effects from bottles, drinking glasses, ice, a metal cigarette lighter, a door frame, a zipper, and what looked like a cigar box into which the actors spoke to produce a muffled sound when the script called for them to be behind closed doors.
Speaking of being behind closed doors, Set and Lighting Director Daniel Ionazzi devised some neat tricks with a sheet so that Ben and Mrs. Robinson’s hotel exploits were not too revealing. Coo coo ca choo! Other lighting effects included the shadows of venetian blinds on the back wall that were sometimes straight and sometimes crooked and sometimes completely tangled.
Music Supervisor Scott Willis used the superior acoustics at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts to great advantage when he opened each act with Simon and Garfunkel songs from the movie soundtrack.
The affable Darren Richardson served not only as the main speaker in the pre-performance Q&A and the introducer in the performance, but also as hotel clerk, priest, and psychiatrist, and all the actors took a turn at the sound effects table.
Other recent L.A. Theatre Works touring shows include Pride and Prejudice and The Pentagon Papers. This troupe, whose actors number in the thousands each year, are not to be missed when they next come to Washington, but they can also be heard on NPR, BBC, Canadian Broadcasting Company, and the Radio Beijing Network in China.
The Graduate was performed on November 1, 2013, at the George Mason University Center for the Arts-4373 Mason Pond Drive, in Fairfax, VA, but continues on a national tour. For future performances at The Center for the Arts, check their calendar of events.