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High Tension Wired

by Erika Nichols, Burlington Writers Workshop

Erika Nichols of Burlington Writers Workshop reviews L.A. Theatre Works’ performance of The Graduate on Wednesday, October 23.

I had my doubts about how this story would translate onto the stage. On screen, the delicate and minute physical interactions between the characters accentuate the absurdity of the plot-line (the classic despondent young man falls for his father’s best friend’s wife and then also her daughter). It was hard to imagine how a facial expression or a touch could have the same effect on the audience from a stage. When one of the actors explained the set-up at the beginning of the show, I became even more skeptical. L.A. Theater Works typically performs radio shows, the actor explained, and they choose one show a season to perform as a live radio show, on a stage, with an audience. As he was saying this, I thought of the early radio shows. Images of a Norman Rockwell painting with a rosy white family crowded eagerly around a radio where actors were dramatically telling a story and making obviously phony sound effects by hand. That might add to the period element of the story, I supposed, but how would that even work?

I figured there was a book and a movie, and bother were extremely popular—could a stage performance measure up? Even a stage performance with very little actual performing, per se. L.A. Theater Works did not try to emulate or elaborate upon the 1967 film version of The Graduate. There was only a black backdrop with neon-blue lighting casting an ethereal shadow on the actors, who stood at a series of microphones spread across the stage on different-leveled platforms. It was as if each actor stood on his or her own stage performing a monologue, speaking directly to the audience, while responding to each other as if on the phone. Oftentimes, they were not even looking at each other as they did so.

And yet, the lack of physical movement allowed the actors to really emphasize their emotional reactions and allowed the audience to really hone in on each character. This format really worked for the story, which heavily depends on the acting to portray these ordinary yet fantastically bizarre characters and their internal struggles. The cyclical nature of the dialogue and the staging added to the emotional tension ripe between the characters.

The only times the actors actually touch is when they kiss, which I guess does happen kind of a lot. There are no sets. There is very little staging. The only times the actors move in space involve walking from one microphone to another, which did seem to require some planning and precision, particularly in the charged argument scenes, where the tension was heightened by the characters circling each other, trading microphones like Musical Chairs. The sex scenes are hilariously done with shadows behind a sheet, held up by the main character’s parents, who are yelling their disappointments and frustrations with him while he and Mrs. Robinson pantomime behind the sheet. I had heard that the sex happened behind a sheet and I guess I imagined it to be more subtle. I was glad it wasn’t.

I brought my mother to the show. We were gripping each other’s arms to hold in the laughter. In between scenes, we whispered the lyrics of Simon & Garfunkel’s repertoire (The Sound of Silence, Scarborough Fair, Hazy Shade of Winter, and, of course, Mrs. Robinson) to each other, tapping each other on the back or knee. I’ve had Mrs. Robinson stuck in my head for days.

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