The Harrison Hilltop Theatre's The Graduate provides a respectable amount of fun, considering that almost nothing in it makes the least bit of sense. Adapted from Charles Webb's 1963 novel and/or Mike Nichols' seminal 1967 comedy, Terry Johnson's script frequently feels like the movie version on fast-forward - the playwright clumsily barrels through both the narrative and its complex emotional transitions - and the show's tone and performance styles are all over the map. Yet considering its frequently awkward and unconvincing elements, director Wayne Hess' comedy does at least offer one truly magical ingredient in Erin Lounsberry, whose performance here is insinuating, disturbing, sexy, and richly, deeply funny.
Given those adjectives, I probably don't need to tell you that she plays booze-hound seductress Mrs. Robinson, the middle-aged vamp who initiates an affair with recent college grad Benjamin Braddock (James Bleecker), and Lounsberry is so brazenly flirtatious and comically assured in the role that she gets you grinning within her first seconds on stage. Arriving at Benjamin's bedroom door with a cat-who-ate-the-canary smirk, and looking as though she were poured into her period-appropriate hot-pink dress, Mrs. Robinson's confidence and overt come-ons are almost alarmingly forceful; it's wholly understandable when Bleecker's stammering virgin shrinks from her in terror. (Lounsberry suggests a woman who will not be denied, and woe to the man who tries to deny her.)
But what's (initially) excruciating for Benjamin is downright heavenly for The Graduate's audience. Dropping sardonic quips with deadpan perfection and wearing her ennui like an accessory, Lounsberry is in exquisite command of her lascivious predator, and she's marvelously physical; during Thursday's performance, just watching the actress languidly sashay across the stage, or absent-mindedly twirl her fingers while waiting for Benjamin to secure a hotel room, conveyed an entire, affluent lifetime of boredom and disappointment, served with a bourbon chaser. Lounsberry is sensational here, and in truth, the show needs her to be, because it's a far less satisfying one when she's not around.
Not having read the book on which Nichols' film was based, I'm in no position to judge whether Johnson's inspiration came more from The Graduate's literary or cinematic forebear. But opening as it does with Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" and the image of Benjamin in full scuba regalia (in his bedroom!), Hess' production is obviously meant to echo the movie to a large degree, and at certain times - as when Benjamin awkwardly places his hand on Mrs. Robinson's breast, or when her clueless husband (Mike Kelly) slaps the kid on the back and utters the immoral "Plastics" line - the echoing effect works.
More often, though, Johnson's adaptation follows The Graduate's plotting but presents it in a rushed and fragmented manner that makes the story seem absurd. Benjamin is now required to do so many emotional flip-flops over so few minutes - sometimes even seconds - of stage time that the character appears less confused than schizophrenic, and his passion for Mrs. Robinson's daughter, Elaine (Abbey Donohoe, a lovely presence in a badly underwritten role), doesn't register at all; Johnson whizzes through their brief courtship, with its decidedly unromantic banter, so blithely that you're left with absolutely no idea of what draws the two together. (Late in the play, Mrs. Robinson states that Benjamin and Elaine will end up boring each other to death, and with all due respect to the actors playing them, she's probably right.)
Perhaps, though, we should be grateful for Johnson's lazy replications, because when the play does significantly diverge from the movie, it borders on the lunatic. There's a particularly damaging segment in which Benjamin's parents (Greg and Jan Golz) take their son to a psychiatrist (a nicely self-amused Don Faust) and apparently don't notice that this "doctor" is, in actuality, a patient, and the play's penultimate scene is, I think, a hideous blunder, one that trashes every remaining nugget of this Graduate's "reality." With its shockingly unexpected appearance by Mr. Robinson, the sequence is certainly well staged, but that doesn't make its inclusion any less baffling, or infuriating.
Stuck with a mostly unplayable (stage) role, Bleecker struggles valiantly, but he's too often required to vacillate between mannered hysteria and cartoonish excess - the protracted lead-up to his unzipping of Mrs. Robinson's dress, in particular, is pure shtick, and hopelessly out of character. Kelly pulls off a wonderfully strong, anguished scene when confronting Benjamin, but the thinly constructed, somewhat insulting figure of Mr. Robinson isn't worthy of the dynamism Kelly brings to it, and the ever-likable Golzes are forced into testing the limits of likability; the one-dimensional Braddocks turn out to be even less appealing on stage than they were on-screen, which is saying a lot. If it weren't for Lounsberry, Harrison Hilltop's latest would be nearly indistinguishable from any generically shrill, dirty-minded sitcom, and no matter your opinion of the source material, that's not what The Graduate is meant to be. I'll be damned, though, if I can tell you what this production is meant to be.
For tickets and information, call (309)253-1654 or visit HarrisonHilltop.com.