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Less Sixties social commentary and more Seventies sitcom, The Graduate unsatisfies

Benjamin (Kayvon Khoshkam) and Elaine (Celine Stubel) get acquainted.

The Arts Club’s The Graduate, directed by Lois Anderson, approaches the iconic film with an adaptation by Terry Johnson that is impossible not to compare to the movie that's ranked as the seventh greatest film of all time by the American Film Institute.

Before Demi Moore and Ashton Kucher normalized the older woman/younger man scenario, there was The Graduate. Based on a 1963 novel by Charles Webb, the movie was released in 1967. Simon and Garfunkel’s music (used as the soundtrack) and images of the affair between Dustin Hoffman (playing Benjamin Braddock as the confused young man) and Anne Bancroft (his next door neighbor, the older woman Mrs. Robinson) are indelibly imprinted on the psyche of that generation.

Adapting from the movie, Brit Terry Johnson wrote the play and premiered it in 2000 in London’s West End. Jerry Hall (Mick Jagger’s ex) and Kathleen Turner are just two of the over-40 set who doffed their clothes to put bums in seats.

One of Canada’s finest actors, Camille Mitchell, plays the Arts Club’s Mrs. Robinson, with Kayvon Khoshkam doing the Benjamin duties.

Within three minutes of the opening of the play, Benjamin declares to a drunken Mrs. Robinson, who is ensconced on his bed, “Are you trying to seduce me, Mrs. Robinson?” -- at which point the old theatre school adage: “Show us, don’t tell us” flies out the window. The rest of the play is just as heavy handed, borrowing repartee from sitcoms, which in turn borrow from French farce. Indeed, there is even a scene where characters come in and out of doors. Three’s Company, anyone?

The set by Amir Offek needed to be more David Hockney Swimming Pool and less Wood-Panels-R-Us’s spring blowout sale. And the costumes by Nancy Bryant needed to commit to the Sixties instead of waffling. Mr. Robinson’s shoulder-padded suit particularly jarred.

Anderson’s direction has a clear point of view, but it does not necessarily work. Trying to make the themes universal and accessible by focusing on parents’ expectations and children rebelling circa 2011 weakens the social commentary -- and the ability of the audience to connect with the characters in a profound way. Like placing Shakespeare in modern dress, it only works if you’re working with a great playwright. Anderson
did, however, direct the lightening-fast repartee with decent comic timing, engendering many laughs from the opening night audience.

There are some truly excellent actors in this cast. Camille Mitchell turns a cardboard cutout Mrs. Robinson into a real person. Celine Stubel’s Elaine Robinson is authentic and engaging; Benjamin’s father, Mr. Braddock (Bill Dow), does his job well. But it is Jerry Wasserman’s Mr. Robinson who offers the best performance in the play. Bursting into Benjamin’s room in the second act, accusing him of destroying his family, his barely suppressed fury sent the hair on the backs of necks on end.

Khoshkam follows the Dustin Hoffman physical type, but his Woody Allen gestures get in the way. Through the run, he may settle down to finding the nuance and visceral appeal of the character.

Yes, the movie is about a young man and older, married woman’s love affair, but it remains so important because of its social significance. It was a statement about the casting off of the bourgeoisie values of the Fifties and the radical shift in attitudes of the Sixties. A snapshot of the confusion and angst of a generation remains poignant and has us considering the similarities and differences of present times, allowing us to consider the future.

The Arts Club’s “The Graduate”, sadly, may garner a few laughs, but don’t expect more.

 

The Graduate is running at the Granville Island Stage till May 14.

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