The Old College Try
A dramedy about the end of college pits child against parents
“Well, graduates, today is the day that your life begins.”
This, or some variation thereof, is a common commencement speech line, meant to inspire the cap-and-gown clad masses as they set out into the so-called real world, armed with their ideals and college diplomas. But does graduation really mark the official segue from post-adolescence to adulthood?
Commencement, written by David Allyn and currently being performed by the Vagabond Players as part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, explores the importance of graduation and growing up, taking a simultaneously uproarious and touching approach that suggests that real life is whatever one makes of it, with or without a college degree.
Directed by Karin Crighton, Commencement takes place in an off-campus house at the fictional, Rhode Island-based Sawyer College. Jeffrey Klein (Rodney Bonds), a 59-year-old magazine editor from Manhattan, has come for an impromptu visit on the eve of his daughter Danni’s (Stacey Bonds, daughter-inlaw of Rodeny Bonds) graduation--with his trophy fiancée, 23-year-old lingerie model Lianne (Lynn McCormick), in tow. His ex-wife, Sharon Klein (Trish Bentz), a New York politician in the midst of an election campaign, has also made a surprise visit, bringing along her 28-year-old campaign manager/boy toy, Terrence (Alex Kafarakis).
The two inevitably clash, with Sharon calling Jeffrey out on his history of womanizing, Jeffrey poking fun at Sharon becoming a Republican, and each party remarking on the other’s twenty-something fling. Danni’s roommate, Megan (Kelly Fuller), an uber-feminist lesbian film student, records the heated exchanges with her camera as she tries to catch the attractive Lianne’s attention. Meanwhile, a frustrated Danni informs her feuding family that she has dropped out of school and converted to Islam in order to provide aid to Muslim women in Marseilles, leading Jeffrey and Sharon to question their own success as parents, partners, and self-aware individuals.
Allyn’s take on the trials and tribulations of modern-day families is the perfect combination of funny and poignant, showcasing self-involved, over-the-hill Manhattan powerhouses as they come to terms with the reality of their failures. Jeffrey and Sharon are both alumni of Sawyer College, and though they have enjoyed success in their careers, neither of them is happy with the way their lives turned out. Danni, on the other hand, has decided to forgo her diploma in order to pursue her own passions, something her parents can’t wrap their heads around. It’s an age-old tale, the older generation balking at the next generation’s reluctance to follow in their failed footsteps, but the humor is fresh, and Allyn’s dialogue is spot-on, keeping the storyline from swimming in cliché.
More importantly, the cast takes the material to a whole new level, making each character compelling to watch. The supporting players are absolutely awesome. McCormick is hilarious as the surprisingly sharp model-girlfriend Lianne, while Kafarakis’ Terrence is great as the power-hungry, conservative political ingénue. Fuller’s Megan steals the show, however, as the pseudo-intellectual soon-to-be graduate who is attached to her cell phone and spouts diatribes about post-feminist theory. It’s particularly enjoyable to watch her interact with Danni’s parents, as well as her attempt to seduce an unwitting Lianne.
The leads also put on great performances, although they are somewhat overshadowed by their secondary counterparts. Stacey Bonds does a good job delving into Danni’s driven, self-confident character, while Rodney Bonds and Bentz are endearing as her befuddled, feuding parents. It is, however, difficult to buy them as Manhattan powerhouses. Bonds’ Jeffrey seems just too jolly and jowly for a womanizing, high-end magazine editor who cavorts with models, while Bentz’s Sharon isn’t quite polished enough to play a political cougar. That being said, they’re both still funny, and they pull off their roles as disenchanted baby-boomers quite well.
Commencement provides an interesting commentary on college education and the "right" paths of life that society has constructed for us over the years. At a point in history where unemployment is high and the opportunities that once lay before college graduates are few and far between, it’s important to remember that there are still adventures to be had and passions to be explored. Through Danni and Commencement, Allyn reminds us that the only "right" path is the one taken for oneself. After all, graduates, you have the rest of your life in front of you.
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