Mike Nichols’ iconic film, the Graduate, taught us that the future is in plastics and launched the career of Dustin Hoffman in the role of bored suburban college grad Benjamin Braddock. His affair with his dad’s business partner’s wife, older woman Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), was as subversive as the soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel (hard to believe now, but best summed up by a line from another great film, Almost Famous, as “It’s poetry of drugs and promiscuous sex. Honey, they’re on pot”). Great editing and camera work added to the immediacy of the film.
What can I say? These are EE-sized Buster Browns to fill. Fortunately, Terry Johnson’s theatrical production of the original film at the Segal Centre takes the best moments and tinkers with others to create a funny, fresh and surprisingly timely work. All the familiar lines are there: “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.” The ending, though, has been reworked and gives a different feel to the overall piece.
Director Andrew Shaver (Sherlock Holmes, Trad, Haunted Hilbilly) brings an attentive touch to every aspect of the play. The sets, the costumes, the delivery, and the cast are all excellent.
Luke Humphrey in the role of Benjamin Braddock is spot-on as the confused, disillusioned young man who has trouble navigating life after a successful college career. His lack of guile (or perhaps more kindly put, his honesty) and his desire to do the right thing while honoring his own inner voice should be a familiar conundrum to today’s current college-aged generation. More boozy and less self-aware than Bancroft, Brigitte Robinson’s Mrs. Robinson comes to Ben’s rescue or his peril, depending on how one sees it, by offering him something to fill his time: sex. This affair continues through an idle summer until Mr. Robinson has Ben take out bright-eyed daughter Elaine (Georgina Beaty). Her up-with-life worldview is a refreshing change from the pit of cynicism Ben finds himself in. Ben is smitten and now must own up to his affair with her mother and pay the piper.
The casting is excellent. While Benjamin’s and Elaine’s parents are both painted rather generically in the film, the actors in the play offer a nuanced expression of love for their children mixed with their own ideals about the best path through life. Their interference in their children’s lives and the fact Ben and Elaine listen to this advice most of the time, is surprisingly familiar with today’s helicopter parents. Seska Lee and Graham Cuthbertson arrive on stage in a variety of guises, from a bisexually lecherous hotel clerk to a go-go inspired stripper. The two give meaning to the phrase “there are no small parts” with their ability to brighten the stage with their sometimes mute presence. Of all the casting decisions, I suppose one of the hardest would be to find people whose physicality matched their roles, and in this case, everyone was a good match — even Ben and Elaine who are both more muscularly toned than their asthmatic looking film counterparts.
The set (James Lavoie) and costumes (Susana Vera) reflect a fine attention to detail. The ’60s are in everyone’s mind since Mad Men and Montreal’s vintage shops must have yielded a treasure trove of goods. Mrs. Robinson’s outfits are enviably sexy, especially her jumpsuit. The hair, the patterns used to create the wall paper, the earth toned colors of the furniture, even the pop up bar capture the era of rich Californian suburbanites in the mid ’60s.
While the music was crucial to the original Graduate, the music in this play has been re-imagined by the dream team of Justin Rutledge and Matthew Barber (read interview HERE). They arrive on stage in grey Sargent Pepper-esque suits with their acoustic guitars and play Sound of Silence. After that, they ford uncharted waters with songs of their own creation. The songs and method of performance are so reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel that I could mistake them for rare originals, if not for phrases like “from Mile End.”
Because this is such a solid production with a likable story, I focused my attention on how fresh and relevant its messages are. One message that stands out is that it is too easy to slip into nihilism and pessimism and life only is meaningful when resisting this tendency. Elaine reminds Ben of all the privileges he enjoys and takes for granted, education, food, safety. Today, headlines urge the same sort of malaise with their reports of a shrinking middle class and the bleak chattel-slave-job future ahead for graduates today. It is all too easy to forget the boons and remarkable achievements we do have at hand.
All in all, The Graduate is a fantastic production with a light touch. Easy to identify characters with pertinent, timely problems of the existential kind make this story especially relevant to young people today.
The Graduate plays at the Segal Centre (5170 Chemin de la Côte-Sainte-Catherine) until Sept 21. $24.95 and up for tickets.