Debating "The Graduate" and "Courtney O'Connell"

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At the end of The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock stops the woman he loves from getting married to another man by crashing her wedding. He bangs on the church glass and screams, "Elaine! Elaine!," in a fit of romantic desperation. (Yup, for those of you who haven't seen The Graduate yet, I just ruined it for you. Serves you right.)

While many people find the film's iconic climax to be breathtakingly passionate, I know that there are a fair number of people who think Elaine (Katherine Ross) made a big mistake by jilting her groom and boarding a bus with Dustin Hoffman's conflicted post-grad slacker. This particularly sharp exchange in Whit Stillman's underrated Barcelona is a fine example of what I'm talking about:

FRED: You think wedding vows are going to change everything? God, your naivete is astounding! Didn't you see The Graduate?

TED: You can remember The Graduate?

FRED: Yeah, I can remember a few things. Apparently, you don't. The end? Katharine Ross has just married this really cool guy—tall, blond, incredibly popular, the make-out king of his fraternity in Berkeley—when this obnoxious Dustin Hoffman character shows up at the back of the church, acting like a total asshole. "Elaine! Elaine!" Does Katharine Ross tell Dustin Hoffman, "Get lost, creep, I'm a married woman?" No. She runs off with him—on a bus. That is the reality.

Fred may have swallowed that ending far easier, say, if Benjamin and Carl (Elaine's fiancee, played by Brian Avery) fought for her hand in marriage in a duel or a knife fight or something like that. Hell, I'm sure Fred would've even settled for a good old-fashioned debate.

In Chalk Repertory Theatre's bouncy production of Mat Smart's The Debate Over Courtney O'Connell of Columbus, Nebraska (playing now through August 24, 2009, at Cafe Metropol in downtown Los Angeles), a debate is what you get—one that's amusing and a tad absurd and who's outcome is determined by an audience vote (which, I am told, varies wildly performance to performance).

Cafe Metropol (a great restaurant by the way—the Truffled Mac & Cheese and the Lobster Ravioli are like sex on a plate) becomes part of the play, wherein Scott "Scooner" Hooner invokes an obscure Nebraska law—the Morgan Morality Act of 1894—that allows a woman's ex to challenge her new lover in a public debate for her hand. The Chalk Rep audience—yes, you can eat while watching—witnesses the debate and is ultimately responsible for one of four possible endings. Whether you side with the nice, successful, devoted fiance or with the aggressive, reckless, passionate ex may say lots about your own outlook on love and romance.

Act Two of the show—a separate one-act play—imagines how the Morgan Morality Act came to be. (There is a question, by the way, of whether the law actually exists. A cursory search on the Internet turned up nothing.) So the production flashes back to 1894 and, startlingly, plays out in broad and sometimes hilarious sketch-comedy brushstrokes—replete with Shakespearian gender bending, fast costume changes, physical comedy, and a slo-mo fight scene that milks that effect for everything it's worth. The second act gets so delightfully ridiculous at times that I found myself muttering, "What am I watching?!" That I reveled in it is a testament to the energetic cast (Feodor Chin, Amy Ellenberger, Jeff Galfer, and Larry Herron) and Jennifer Chang's briskly paced directing.

As a supporter (and creator) of theater for people who don't go to theater, I'm chalking this one up for the team.

[The Debate Over Courtney O'Connell of Columbus, Nebraska is running through August 24, 2009, at Cafe Metropol in Los Angeles. For more information and tickets, visit Chalk Repertory Theatre.]

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BAMBOO NATION: Debating "The Graduate" and "Courtney O'Connell"
Debating "The Graduate" and "Courtney O'Connell"
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