And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you will know, and so does everyone coming to see her at the Greenbelt Arts Center’s production of The Graduate. Adapted for the stage by Terry Johnson from the classic 1967 film, Director Jeffery Lesniak puts a whole new spin on the seduction of Benjamin Braddock in this classic tale of a recent college graduate with unpromising potential. For those that don’t know the story – Braddock has graduated college and on the night of his graduation party finds himself propositioned by the very seductive Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s oldest business partner and dearest friend. He entangles himself into a web of debauchery with the amoral alcoholic sexpot and all goes well until he meets Elaine, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, and falls in love.
This particular production of The Graduate stands out in many ways. Director Jeffery Lesniak has made bold decisions which alter what one might expect when coming to the show. As would be expected there is nudity in this show; full frontal female nudity. However, Lesniak’s execution of this concept seems muddled and at times gratuitous. The audience expects Mrs. Robinson to be naked because it advances the plot of the show, and for the brief moment that she appears naked the audience might be left feeling cheated because of how very short this encounter is. It’s everyone else’s nudity that seems superfluous.
I am by far no prudish person but I believe that nudity in the theatre has the purpose of driving the plot or revealing something important to the function of the production. Lesniak chooses to make his Dancer Girl (Jennifer Harvey) during the strip club scene bare all, first by dropping the silver pasties and then upon her return to the stage completely naked. While done tastefully this appears to be a case of just wanting more naked bodies on the stage and does not enhance the show but rather turns it into a burlesque. The scene would have advanced naturally with just a dropping of Harvey’s top, but again Lesniak pushes the envelope into unnecessary when she flaunts her naked body back across the stage. We see yet another instance of this gratuitous nudity at the end of the show when Elaine (Heather Martin) shimmies out of her wedding dress. This leaves Martin completely naked without cause. We know she’s getting in bed with Benjamin to consummate the marriage, so having her completely naked appears to be another unnecessary gratification on Lesniak’s part.
Lesniak makes bold casting choices in his leads for the show. Zachary Hamilton as Benjamin Braddock is a unique choice because of how young Hamilton looks. Instead of looking like a recent college graduate the actor looks almost like a high school graduate. This actually plays to the advantage of the show, allowing that forbidden lascivious feeling of his relationship with Mrs. Robinson to really overwhelm everyone involved. Rachel Duda appearing as Mrs. Robinson is another bold choice. Lesniak has chosen a very voluptuous curvy woman – a buxom beauty in comparison to the iconic Kathleen Turner who was the first to take the role to the stage professionally. This particular casting choice by Lesniak allows the play to take a different approach to the standards of beauty – showing that a mature full-figured woman can be equally seductive as a lithe, slender woman.
Duda to her credit slides into the seductive role very easily. From the moment she arrives in Hamilton’s room she is smooth, calm and collected with a saucy air about her that is veiled in her simple words and requests. She saunters easily across the stage, casting unnerving glances at Hamilton, making her every bit the seductive viper the character is meant to be. In a hot flash she is desperate and pleading, begging to make a sexual arrangement work between them, her need clear in her yearning voice and sensual body language. Duda later flips herself around to become the angry impertinent mother figure, hating on Hamilton for all that he’s done, blaming him, and chastising her daughter for her involvement with such a degenerate.
Hamilton has easily mastered the rollercoaster of emotions this play has thrown at him. From panicked, to cocky, uncertain to arrogant, with passionate and confused, and a vast many more, this young actor translates each of his character’s feelings with confidence and never falters in a moment of surprise or unease. Hamilton takes control of the situation between his character and Duda’s during the awkward conversation they have while the pair are naked in bed together. His command of this scene is impressive to say the least; guiding the moment with subtle movements and punctuated articulation on certain words and phrases. Hamilton adapts to the role providing the audience with a character that we truly come to care about by the end of the show.
The supporting ensemble unfortunately came across rather flat, except for Mr. Robinson (Aref Dajani). While the other actors were reciting semi-rehearsed lines – Dajani was exuding a great internal struggle over whether or not to kill Hamilton’s character. When the confrontation between Dajani and Hamilton occurs, Dajani is just barely composed, teetering on the edge of madness and then later erupts like a volcano into that full-blown hysterical anger, chasing Hamilton around with an ax. Dajani gives the best supporting performance of the show and is a thoroughly enjoyable actor.
Come for a night of unique seduction with Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin at GAC’s The Graduate.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.