Barely a few moments into Studio Players' season finale, The Graduate, it is clear that the play is its own beast, not just a staged knock-off of the iconic 1967 film about a young college graduate who gets embroiled in a sexual affair with a much older woman and a love affair with her daughter.
The play's freshness is partly due to Terry Johnson's adapted script, which draws from both the movie by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry and the novel by Charles Webb, and includes backstory and scenes omitted from the film.
The rest is due to Bob Singleton's intrepid direction.
Singleton mines the material's salacious veneer to reveal enmeshed psychological dysfunctions that are even more uncouth. And mesmerizing.
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From the seeds of loveless desire sewn in the play's opening scenes ("Unzip my dress...") to the wedding-crashing lovesick madness of the play's final scenes ("Elaine!!"), it's like watching a lascivious emotional train wreck and Singleton invites you to gape and gawk at all of the carnage.
Where other directors might pull back is exactly where Singleton hits the throttle.
Take the seduction and affair between young Benjamin Braddock (Alex Maddox) and his father's business partner's wife, Mrs. Robinson (Allie Darden). I half expected to see the couple's darkened silhouettes splashed across David Bratcher's clever set design, a series of panels that added visual texture and mystique to the narrative, playing with shadow and light.
But when the duo hits the hotel sheets, Singleton leaves very, very little to the imagination. Just like when Benjamin intentionally takes Mrs. Robinson's daughter Elaine on one of the worst dates of all time—to a strip club. If Elaine's discomfort is palpable as two burlesque dancers (Erica Solitaire Chappell and Megan Jellison) wiggle around the stage, she nearly blows a gasket when one of them unleashes her swirling, red-glittered pasties.
It's a good thing the theater was dark because I could feel the audience blushing.
Without the weight of darkly complicated performances by Darden and Maddox the play's in-your-face carnality might seem cheap.
But the play's titillating shock value isn't just for spectacle alone.
It exposes the gritty vulgarity of these characters' inner lives, and the sexual component of that vulgarity is the least disturbing when compared to the full spectrum of their emotional maladies.
Despite their age difference, Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin have one thing in common—both are emotionally numb, cynical, and paralyzed by the upper middle class society they belong to.
Darden's Mrs. Robinson does not seem sex-crazed so much as sad and hopelessly alienated. Alcohol and empty sex don't cure her loneliness, only make it bearable.
Their affair is mostly about a desperate need to feel something, anything, but it sparks a chain of events than ruin their families' lives and Singleton drives his ensemble to play out that ruin to jarring effect.
For instance, by the end of the play, the same man (Kelly R. Hale) who slaps Benjamin on the back and famously encourages a career in plastics is wielding an axe in a church.
Despite all of this drama with a capitol D, the lurid sexuality, and the heavy-hitting emotional landscapes of deeply troubled characters, the show's most surprisingly enjoyable element — and perhaps the most difficult to pull off — is its humor.
Darden delivers dry one liners with impeccable timing and Maddox weaves a laconic sense of wry disbelief that anything is happening to him at all into his character.
Supporting performances, like Ellen Jenkins' naïve and buoyant Elaine, are important foils. And the interconnectedness of all of the characters, including Benjamin's parents, humorously played by Brett Ervin and Sharon Sikorski, drive home the collective dysfunction to fascinatingly gruesome effect.