Theater & Dance
"The Graduate"

By: Adapted by Terry Johnson from the novel by Charles Webb and the movie screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry
Produced by: Palo Alto Players
Directed by: Jeanie K. Smith
Featuring: Max Tachis, Shawn Bender, Mark Novak, Raegena Raymond-Brunker, Betsy Kruse Craig, Michelle Skinner, Adam Currier, Tom Farley, Karen M. Sanders
Running time: 110 minutes, one intermission
When: June 16 through July 2, 2017
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Tickets: $25-$52 (discounts available. Call 650-329-0891 or viait

Kruse Craig, Tachis, Skinner
Joyce Goldschmid / Palo Alto Players
Betsy Kruse Craig as Mrs. Robinson, Max Tachis as Benjamin and Michelle Skinner as Elaine, from left, in the violently angry and funny scene at the church in "The Graduate" at Palo Alto Players, running June 16 through July 2, 2017.
'Graduate' enrolls for laughs,
deep meanings at PA Players
Excellent cast, direction make play
work extremely well at Lucie Stern Theatre
June 18, 2017

One of the great pleasures of seeing a lot of theater on the Peninsula and in the South Bay is watching actors develop their craft.

Maybe we spot a bit of promise in a slightly unpolished performance, then the occasional excellent performance as the actor develops.

Such as Max Tachis, whom I first saw, I think, in 2013 at Renegade Theatre Experiment in San Jose. I've seen him do what I would call acceptable work, and I've seen him do excellent work, in several shows since then.

In "The Graduate," which opened Saturday at Palo Alto Players, Max Tachis is brilliant.

It's an odd play, about a young cynic who has just graduated from college with all kinds of honors but who has no respect for his parents who have, in fact, spoiled him rotten, and no respect for the lives led by his parents or his parents' friends. And no realistic plans for himself.

"I have one word for you," says Mr. Robinson to Benjamin Braddock, the graduate: "Plastics."

That line got a big laugh from teens and college students in 1967, when the movie version of the Charles Webb novel came out. To the disaffected youngsters of that time, anybody who was a faker or insincere or square was "plastic." Never mind the industry of making plastic.

I hadn't bothered to see the movie again, although some of director Mike Nichols' amazing imagery lives on in my mind, and had no idea what the play might be like.

Well, it's wonderful. It's smart, it's funny, and director Jeanie K. Smith has her cast running better than clockwork, making the most of every funny line and bit of stagecraft.

Betsy Kruse Craig is excellent as Mrs. Robinson. "Do you know I'm an alcoholic?" Mrs. Robinson asks the awkward young — but of legal age — man. "I fall out of cars. I insult senators in our home."

Comedy on stage requires timing, and Tachis and Kruse Craig are absolutely excellent at it, exchanging every line in the exact way to get the best laughs. They make a great team.

Tachis is so fun to watch in the role. His face, his movements, his line readings, tell the story beautifully.

And there are lots of laughs in this show, even if it is about a young man of very few redeeming qualities. He got good grades, sure, and has big dreams about wanting to see the world (an adventure that lasts eight days, when he learns that pretty much all farmers can talk about is their crops), but has no real goals, and is effectively hamstrung by his cynicism and self-deceit.

Which Mrs. Robinson understands all too well. She's happy to have a months-long affair with him, but she is completely cynical about it. Kruse Craig is the queen of smirks, and this show calls for her to deliver a bunch of them.

She is also tall and beautiful, and completely rocks the lacy black underthings she wears in bedroom scenes. Tachis is tall and handsome in his underwear.

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Mrs. Robinson may be a drunk and a loose woman, but she understands Benjamin all too well, which is why she doesn't want him to get anywhere near her daughter, Elaine.

And Elaine — beautifully played by Michelle Skinner, who has been in every Palo Alto Players production this season — is sweet, smart and forgiving. Benjamin is too self-absorbed to be any of those things consistently.

The drama hits the fan when he asks her out anyway, and gets worse — but more comical — when everybody finds out about the affair he had with Mrs. Robinson.

Raegena Raymond-Brunker is extremely good as Benjamin's mother, who is written as a hysterical clown, but between the laughs we can see the tragedy of her love for her son.

Shawn Bender is also extremely good as Benjamin's father, alternating between bluster and love for his son as he struggles to understand.

Raymond-Brunker and Bender share a telling and funny scene with Tom Farley as a shrink.

Mark Novak is great fun to watch as Mr. Robinson, especially in the scene when Benjamin pulls Elaine out of the church, where she was going to marry someone else (played, fleetingly, by Adam Currier). After getting through the door Benjamin had blocked, he's yelling and trying to hit Benjamin, all the time with a red, blustery face. Makeup or real blood flow? I don't know, but it worked. I also liked that he has a touch of sibilance when he yells, which makes his line delivery more fun.

A very telling scene about Benjamin being a putz is when he is forced by his father to take Elaine on a date, and he takes her to a strip club, and behaves badly. Karen M. Sanders is in that scene as the stripper, and draws a gasp from the audience when she shows up with only some tasseled pasties covering her nipples.

Elaine, sweetly, compliments the stripper for her breasts.

This show speeds along, with no downtime for boredom. Even with a 15-minute intermission, it ran less than two hours.

Nikolaj Sorensen's set is mainly six handsome, hanging panels, and with the help of properties designer Scott Ludwig and lighting designer Kedar Lawrence, do just fine as various bedrooms, a hotel lobby and the shrink's office. They fly away when less attractive scenic elements come in to make a church. Sound design by Gordon Smith was excellent. Stage manager Lauren Howry kept things humming along.

Costumes by Kathleen Qiu were terrific, from Benjamin's wetsuit to the gorgeous suit Mrs. Robinson wears to the wedding.

"The Graduate" is the end of Palo Alto Players' 2016-17 season. The 2017-18 season begins in September with "Million Dollar Quartet," about Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.

Email John Orr at

Tachis, Kruse Craig
Joyce Goldschmid / Palo Alto Players
Max Tachis as Benjamin, left, does his graduate work in Mrs. Robinsonology with Betsy Kruse Craig as Mrs Robinson in "The Graduate" at Palo Alto Players, running June 16 through July 2, 2017.
Tachis, Skinner
Joyce Goldschmid / Palo Alto Players
Max Tachis as Benjamin, left, is confronted by Michelle Skinner as Elaine, the Robinson’s daughter church in "The Graduate" at Palo Alto Players, running June 16 through July 2, 2017.