MAC production reimagines ‘The Graduate’ in the present day

By Paul Harris

A new stage production of “The Graduate” has, if you’ll forgive the expression, graduated.

Unlike the setting for the legendary film starring Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman in the 1960s, this version, set to open next weekend at Manhattan Arts Center, is set in the present day. Even the soundtrack, provided in the movie by Simon and Garfunkel, has been updated by the band Ben Folds Five. And instead of references to the Civil Rights Movement, audience members will find references to Occupy Wall Street.

The idea of updating the scene was Director Dave Smit’s idea.

Smit explained that costumes were behind the push.

“I think the biggest thing is that we did not want to do it as a period (piece),” he said. “Then you have to get costumes that look like the ’60s. Then you have people who say, ‘That is not the ’60s; that looks more like early ’70s.’”

This is Smit’s first directorial effort with “The Graduate,” but his seventh with the MAC. Both lead actors — Richard Dean Prudenti, who plays Benjamin, and Katie Van Saun, who plays Elaine — are also performing “The Graduate” for the first time; in fact, it’s Van Saun’s performance debut.

Smit said it was difficult to find the right people to play the main roles.

“We have decided to do it as differently as possible,” Smit said. “You want people to suggest the same basic character, but you want them to be different enough so people do not start comparing.”

When Prudenti auditioned for the role, he was familiar with the movie, but had not seen it recently, which Smit liked.

“He was glad that I hadn’t because it gave me a chance to be more fresh,” Prudenti said.

While the backdrop may have changed, Smit said audience members will connect.

“Those issues of being unhappy with your life, especially in upper-class suburbia,” he said. “In this case it’s in California, but it could be Overland Park for that matter. It’s a quest for meaning. Those themes, I think, are still relevant.”

Van Saun and Prudenti agreed.

“Most movies we see today have these same kinds of topics,” Van Saun said.

“There are anxieties about the future. There are insecurities,” Prudenti said. “People have their hang-ups. It’s probably truer now than ever.”

Both Van Saun and Prudenti said they have found ways to relate to their characters.

Prudenti, 34, is more than 10 years older than his character.

“I can think back, and I can relate to the feelings that I have now,” he said. “Having moved and been uprooted, I’m feeling a bit lost.” Prudenti came to Manhattan in November.

Both Elaine and Van Saun are college students getting ready to graduate.

“I know there is a lot of uncertainty about my future,” she said. “I think that’s a big way I can relate to Elaine and dig deep in to her character.”

The play opens on Friday and will run through March 4. As those familiar with the 1960s movie can guess, it has been deemed “not suitable for children.”

Smit said handling the graphic nature of the play, which involves the seduction of a young man by an older woman, has been a challenge.

He noted that the standard version of the play has a nude scene. “I’m not going to tell you how we handle that, but I think we found a creative way to get around it,” he said.

“The language is not totally provocative. I don’t think what we are doing is any more sexy then your standard show on television.”

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