If you ever need a tutorial about how to act drunk (trust me, there will be a time) then turn your gimlet gaze toward Malinda L. Beckham, who gracefully stumbles, shambles, and all but traipses the light fantastic, as cougar Mrs. Robinson, through Terry Johnson's adaptation of The Graduate, via Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.
Watch as she maneuvers around the bed as she goes after her prey like some heat-seeking missile, avoiding the inevitable collision at the last moment, while still retaining the drink in her hand. That glass is not going anywhere, you can be sure. See how she torpedoes toward the bar cart, knowing exactly where it is and how far away. The trolley may be out of focus, but she can smell it. She hones in, always within striking distance, and makes a deft pour. See how she wobbles into the bathroom to change into something more comfortable. She's much too classy to walk into the wall. Anyway, the wall wouldn't stand a chance. Talons out, she keeps her liquor close, close to her heart.
The thing is, Mrs. Robinson isn't out for blood, she just wants sex, and knows exactly how to get it. Alcohol doesn't dull her pursuit, it heightens it. And we're well aware that this isn't the first time she has set her bleary eyes upon some young stud and had her way with him. As the play begins, she has zeroed in on recent college graduate Benjamin, son of her husband's business partner. Poor sweet Benjamin doesn't stand a chance against this sex-charged older woman who wears tiger stripes as if trophies. She could eat him alive, but why bother. Just spit him out and move on to the next boy toy after she's had her way.
In her form-fitting ensembles and pillbox hairdo, as tightly wound as her psyche, Beckham sashays through the play and makes it her own. Purring, then growling, then purring again, she's got incredible animal instincts. Formidable, devious, and three sheets to the wind, she's always one step ahead of everybody else as she glides through her afternoon delights in leopard-print shoes.
This is not what the playwright had in mind. The Graduate is supposed to be Benjamin's story, but we can't stop watching Beckham.
Mike Nichols' 1967 movie adaptation of Charles Webb's novel, starring soon-to-be megastar Dustin Hoffman and Oscar-winner Anne Bancroft, was the counter-culture zeitgeist of the moment. Full of breathless zooms and in-your-face close-ups, the movie embraced the very essence of “Never trust anyone over 30.” This was antique Feydeau sex farce hyped with hippie Haight-Ashbury message.
Fresh out of college, Benjamin doesn't know what to do with his life. He's as useless as that plastic frogman at the bottom of his childhood aquarium. Idealistic and virginal, he's ripe for picking. And guess who's out looking for apples? What Mrs. Robinson doesn't foresee – since she's a bit clouded in judgment – is that her nubile daughter Elaine might just be ripe for Benjamin. Of course, Elaine will eventually have to overlook that little matter of his sleeping with her mother. Oops.
Johnson doesn't know what's best to crib from the movie or the book, so he makes things up on his own. He condenses scenes, drops motivation, creates out of whole cloth, and doesn't do anyone any favors. Elaine is particularly blindsided. Actor Callie Timme is delightfully fizzy, like a young Goldie Hawn, but Johnson grinds her down with antediluvian attitudes about how brilliant Benjamin is and how inadequate she is. We've seen no evidence of this from Benjamin, so Elaine's worship is peculiar to say the least. And anyway, who can sympathize with a recent college grad who, without irony, fulsomely praises cab drivers as “angels”? For all of Timme's effulgence, Elaine ping pongs through the play and is never believable.
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As Benjamin, Brian Chambers has the innocence to suggest a wayward youth without guidance, but he's pretty much a sack of potatoes in his athletic tee and boxer shorts. What is his breathless appeal to Mrs. Robinson, who's had her fair share of hunky neighborhood pool boys and tennis pros? And what exactly does dewy Elaine see in him? Suspension of disbelief goes only so far.
And then there are those annoying video projections. Three screens; three too many. The numbing home movies of backyard pool parties and strip clubs upstage the actors, disorient the foreground, and then loop endlessly like some stoned '70s underground flick. Didn't director Travis Ammons see how wrong this was? It's difficult enough to play a scene in front of any moving background, but when the screens seem as large as Radio City Music Hall, it's impossible. When used as simple scenic design – a picture of a vase of flowers to depict a nondescript hotel room – the projections work best.
As a satire that pushed the conventional hot buttons of the '60s, the film of The Graduate still shocks. Johnson's stage adaptation is squishy and too soft. But you know what's hard? Malinda Beckham. Tottering on high heels, drink planted firmly in hand, going for the jugular. Divine.
The Graduate continues at 7:30 pm, Monday June 4; 7:30 pm Thursday June 7; 8 pm Friday June 8 and Saturday, June 9 at Dirt Dogs Theatre Co., the MATCH, 3400 Main. For information, call 713-521-4533 or visit dirtdogstheatre.org. $22.