By Daniella Walsh, Special to the Independent
Freshly minted college grad Benjamin Braddock wages a comical struggle in his bedroom trying to put on a diving suit and mask. They’re a graduation present from his parents that he is supposed to demonstrate in the family pool for them and their guests, gathered to celebrate the newest member of the educated suburban elite.
Except Ben’s demeanor befits that of a depressed toddler. He balks even as his father and his business partner, Mr. Robinson, try to coax him downstairs by congratulating him on a slew of college honors. It is then that the latter famously expounds on the virtues of a career in plastics.
Enter Mrs. Robinson, tipsy and in need of lying down. Sizing up Ben, she changes course, intent on some quickie horizontal mambo.
So begins the Laguna Playhouse production of “The Graduate,” starring Melanie Griffith as Mrs. Robinson, the notorious older seductress, and Nick Tag as the nebbishy Ben, her reluctant quarry.
Griffith, an award-winning actress still very much on top of her game, reprises the 1967 role by Anne Bancroft, who received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal. Less finessed than Bancroft’s depiction, Griffith stays down to earth while portraying a woman who, drunk or sober, knows what she wants. Here she wants Ben, no matter what. Trying to get him to peel her out of a sheath and then just doing it herself, she reveals how she has all the right accouterments.
Again, Ben won’t have any of it. Throughout his awkward protestations, he reveals that he is 21-year-old, presumably a virgin, unschooled in the wiles of young women, let alone those of a voracious, sexually frustrated, older, married woman.
If the concept appears quaint, the story originates in a 1963 novel by Charles Webb, an epoch when, presumably, young adult virgins of either gender were numerous and older women trawling for younger men less so.
In this age of “# me too,” “The Graduate” serves as a time capsule that captures a role reversal of another archetype. Initially, Mrs. Robinson outright coerces Ben, needling his libido, along the lines of a real man would sleep with her in a heartbeat.
Tall and lanky, Tag plays his discomfort to the hilt, but eventually matches Griffith’s heat during their ensuing hotel assignations. The resulting hilarity of one such scene is due in large part to Stephen Gifford’s scenic design, which includes a bevy of extras costumed in ‘60s garb moving furniture and sets around to emphasize the action.
What continues to drive the story is Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine. Never an adoring daughter, she becomes an unwitting competitor to her overbearing mother. Martha Magruder delivers a well-calibrated and nuanced performance of the starry-eyed college girl home from Berkeley, full of idealism and wonder at actually having seen the Mona Lisa.
Then she goes on a date with Ben, arranged by their respective parents. Things go awry. She has a boyfriend and Ben, warned earlier by Mrs. Robinson to stay away from her daughter, takes her to dinner at a strip club, reducing her to tears.
Kudos to Taylor Rene Labarbera, who portrays a young pole dancer with skill and just the right touch of humor. There’s even a bit of female bonding in that unlikely setting.
Those familiar with the story know that despite their initial distaste for each other, Elaine and Ben wind up together, eventually, married even. How and why such disparate characters came to mate for life eludes me and is for audiences to sort out. Meanwhile, Mama Robinson flips out, spills details of the liaison and accuses Ben of rape—for naught.
Directed by Michael Matthews, the production moves at a rapid clip enhanced by a foot-tapping soundtrack and an ensemble of actors, many from Chapman University. They whizz about the stage in costumes to give visual clues to the zeitgeist the preceded the era of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.
The show runs through March 25.
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