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Review: A well-balanced mix of pathos and farce

“The Graduate” is an unusual hybrid: A bedroom farce mixed with social satire; a classic movie adaptation mixed with new material; and a romantic comedy mixed with a stalker story.

That’s what makes this new stage adaptation both frustrating and compulsively entertaining. “The Graduate” on stage is an odd duck, like Benjamin Braddock himself, but ultimately winning.

This Interplayers version, directed with style and a bright ’60s flair by Maria Caprile, makes the best of this material. At least three out of every four scenes work both dramatically and comically, which is a high compliment, considering the script they had to work with.

Terry Johnson’s stage adaptation, which had long runs in both London and New York, downplays most of Mike Nichols’ sharp social satire and emphasizes the strangeness just below the surface. If the movie made you root for Benjamin in his quixotic quest to win the love of Elaine, the play often makes you wonder why, exactly, Elaine would want to elope with a mopey misanthrope like Benjamin.

This is no knock on Carter J. Davis as Benjamin. On the contrary, Davis is the heart of this play. He wisely does not attempt to channel Dustin Hoffman, who brought his own mannerisms to this role. Davis is more like a young Kevin Spacey and his Benjamin is more of a brooding intellectual, prone to smoking cigarettes and pondering the shallowness of the affluent society.

Yet Davis is also excellent at the other half of this hybrid, the bedroom farce. When he tries to rent a hotel room for a tryst with Mrs. Robinson, he paces, he stammers, he pretends that he’s not a customer and generally gives a seminar on comic embarrassment. Then, in the hotel room, his fumbling fingers are a perfect match for his stammering speech. When suavely doffing his trousers, he falls over sideways.

He also effectively delivers the most famous line of the movie: “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me … aren’t you?”

Karen Kalensky has an uphill battle in the role of Mrs. Robinson. Anne Bancroft made the character legendary: knowing, jaded and brutally callous. Kalensky plays the character more directly as written: sad, alcoholic and bored. It’s an effective performance yet inevitably more mundane.

The supporting cast is strong up and down the line, especially Emily Cleveland as the naïve Elaine; Tony Caprile and Tamara Schupman as Benjamin’s beleaguered parents; and especially John Oswald as the volcanic (and ax-wielding) Mr. Robinson.

Maria Caprile delivers some wonderful directorial touches. Sliding translucent panels line the back of the stage. They are backlit so that silhouettes are projected on them – a very ’60s touch. For instance, Mrs. Robinson is first introduced through sexy silhouette. These silhouettes (along with some evocative percussive music) added interest to the set changes, which would otherwise have seemed uncommonly long.

And speaking of long, this stage adaptation is way too long and feels padded out. The first act alone went 90 minutes. Johnson felt the need to add some new scenes, presumably to provide back story and character depth, but they usually don’t work. The play’s worst scene, by far, is one of those added: an extended drunk scene in which Mrs. Robinson and Elaine blubber about their relationship the way people do in an alcoholic stupor, i.e., incoherently. I just wanted this scene to end.

One other way that “The Graduate” is a hybrid: It’s often extremely funny and sometimes devastatingly sad. This creates its own directorial problems. Do you go for the laughs or the pathos? Caprile and the cast struck a nice balance, even if the audience took some of the saddest and bitterest scenes – Benjamin and Elaine’s awful first date, for instance – as if they were just for laughs.

Despite all of the caveats, I ended up riveted to this story 90 percent of the time. I had to shake my head at some of it, but, ultimately, I couldn’t take my eyes off a story which so audaciously combines farce, black comedy and pathos.

“The Graduate” continues through May 9. Call (509) 455-7529 for tickets.
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