Theater review

Review: Keegan Theatre's 'The Graduate' at Church Street Theater

HERE'S TO YOU . . . FOR TRYING: Tom Carman and Sheri S. Herren star in Keegan Theatre's disappointing production at the Church Street Theater.
HERE'S TO YOU . . . FOR TRYING: Tom Carman and Sheri S. Herren star in Keegan Theatre's disappointing production at the Church Street Theater. (Jim Coates)
By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Don't count on being seduced by "The Graduate," the latest offering from the Keegan Theatre. This production of Terry Johnson's play -- an adaptation of the iconic 1967 movie and the Charles Webb novel that inspired it -- is not entirely terrible: Director Kathleen Akerley has given its early scenes an appealingly quirky tone, and she has cast two performers, Sheri S. Herren and Tom Carman, who bring spontaneity and distinctiveness to the lead roles. But Akerley hasn't been able to debug the script, whose sections of implausible, wheel-spinning dialogue -- particularly in Act 2 -- pretty much scuttle the entire enterprise.

"The Graduate," needless to say, chronicles the adventures of Benjamin Braddock (Carman), a newly minted 1960s college alum whose free-floating angst and distaste for his smug upper-middle-class milieu drive him into an affair with the much-older Mrs. Robinson (Herren). This erotic escapade provokes an avalanche of fuss and rashness after Benjamin tumbles for Mrs. Robinson's guileless daughter Elaine (Jenny Donovan). What the affair does not provoke, in the stage version, unfortunately, is an avalanche of Simon and Garfunkel songs: Johnson's adaptation, which opened on Broadway in 2002, is a straight play, not a musical.

Akerley's rendition of this coming-of-age tale unfolds on a set whose bed, reconfigurable wall fragments and repeated pastel design motifs give the production a tinge of pot-brownie dreaminess -- a slightly abstract touch that helps fend off memories of the movie's visual specificity. (George Lucas is the set designer; Neil McFadden masterminded the sound, with its suitably spooky rippling-swimming-pool effects.) The scenery's subdued hues make the sultry first entrance of Mrs. Robinson, in an emerald-green cocktail dress, all the splashier. (Kelly Peacock devised the telling costumes.)

Without defanging Mrs. Robinson, the splendidly poised Herren radiates a playfulness that makes this femme fatale interesting and engaging. Carman brings almost as much stage presence to his now-jokey, now-petrified, now-exasperated Benjamin. Donovan (like Carman, a recent Catholic University graduate) has moments of stiltedness as Elaine, but Slice Hicks glowers drolly as Mr. Braddock, and Colin Smith is quite funny as a vulgar Mr. Robinson. Eli Sibley overdoes the mugging in a couple of cameos, but she exudes sleazy gravitas as a stripper. (The production includes nudity.) As the more eccentric characters (including Jane Petkofsky's flighty Mrs. Braddock) pop on and off, the production's early scenes acquire an intriguing hallucinatory feel. Klyph Stanford's lighting enhances the stylization.

Alas, as the play approaches the halfway mark, Johnson's script loses its bite, and Akerley's production (which does take a daring approach to the famous "Plastics" line) loses its pacing. Confrontations between Benjamin and Elaine, Benjamin and Mr. Robinson, Benjamin and Elaine's wedding party seem to go on and on, without providing any convincing insights into the personalities involved. Benjamin memorably dismisses his 1960s social set as "grotesque"; maybe our own era's addiction to movie-derived plays is more deserving of the term.

Wren is a freelance writer.

The Graduate

by Terry Johnson, based on Charles Webb's novel and the screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. Directed by Kathleen Akerley; properties design, Carol Baker. With Michael Innocenti and Joe Thornhill. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through May 23 at the Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW. Call 703-892-0202 or visit http://www.keegantheatre.com.


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