Arena Stage’s production of Todd Kreidler’s stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, by Oscar winner William Rose, is a delightfully funny, wonderfully acted, evening of theatre that should not be missed.
When the film opened in theatres on December 11, 1967, the United States was rife with upheaval. The Vietnam War was in full swing, with protests mounting every month. The Civil Rights Movement was gathering momentum, with Martin Luther King, Jr. coming out several months earlier against the war and uniting opposition to war and racism.
…a truly uplifting evening of theatre.
In ’68 the United States would explode; but for now it was only boiling.
The question remaining for this new stage version, which was in its own right a drawing-room comedy fashioned for cinema, is it still relevant for today.
I’m happy to report: as relevantly funny as ever.
You probably will not leave Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with any new revelations about race relations, but you will leave more filled with radical youthful optimism than you’re ever likely to be filled with again.
The story is basic comedy. The Draytons are bedrock liberals. Their 23-year-old daughter brings home unannounced a somewhat older man, with whom she fell in love only ten days ago; the older man is black. She then announces that they will marry in two weeks. To complicate the issue, the man will not proceed with the marriage if her parents do not approve. From there, the flabbergasts, the misunderstandings, the hold-your-horses, the “let’s get one thing straight” moments produce a veritable chorus of show stopping laughs.
Leading the cast of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Doctor John Prentice, the young accomplished African-American doctor turned scientist at the heart of the play’s agitation. Mr. Warner, who entered America’s consciousness as the son of another doctor, Dr. Huxtable of the Cosby Show, does a fine job as the dignified, almost too perfect groom-to-be that only a true racist could hate.
Dr. Prentice is brought into the Drayton’s home by their rambunctious daughter, Joanna, aka Joey, aka Bethany Anne Lind, an actress with so much positive energy that she could make any curmudgeon giggle. Ms. Lind’s Joanna lies at the heart of this adaptation, which focuses more than anything on the power of youthful idealism to transform the world, and Ms. Lind is up to the task. No matter how outrageously naïve each of her acts of transgression might be, they shift the center of gravity toward her perspective.
With Dr. Prentice looking on, Joanna confronts the world, not only her mother and father, played with comic authenticity by Tess Malis Kincaid and Tom Key. Ms. Kincaid’s Christina has big shoes to fill (Katharine Hepburn played mom in the original), but she does so with beauty: her grace and resolve pouring through. Meanwhile Key’s Matt, the progressive paragon of the family, has equally big shoes awaiting him (Spencer Tracy’s last role). Matte also has to travel the furthest of the characters, shifting from workaholic husband to shocked father to possibly racist bigot to reasonable cynic to understand daddy to his girl. Mr. Key pulls off his rollercoaster ride in convincing fashion.
Stealing the show, however, with her grandmotherly forthrightness is Matilda Binks, the Drayton family maid, played by Lynda Gravátt. From the moment she steps on stage and reveals her not-to-be-trifled-with self, you await her return with but one more tidbit of clear-eyed but set-in-my-ways wisdom.
There are also a host of secondary characters who add fuel to this funny as hell fire. Dr. Prentice’s parents who, in another act of Joanna style precociousness, arrive at the dinner in the second act, not only expand the play’s thematic focus but also offer the audience the African-American perspective on the same situation. The results are equally funny.
Eugene Lee and Andrea Frye play Mr. and Mrs. Prentice with stern no-foolishness. Mr. Lee’s is superb and his comic return from sitting in the car, to proclaim: “…someone’s going to call the police, think I’m trying to rob the place” brought the house down.
Ms. Frye, on the other hand, takes the honors for her stoic dignity in the midst of a world turned topsy turvy. She delivers Mary’s speech dressing down all stodgy old white men with pure conviction.
Finally we have the play’s two polar opposites.
On the one end there’s Hilary St. George, Mrs. Drayton’s fellow art dealer. Valerie Leonard captures the socialite’s racial hostility just right, giving her sincerity and not over playing the moment. Her character gives Christina a chance to shine as well when, much to the joy of Arena’s liberal audience, she steps forward and ushers her bigotry out the door.
On the other end of this spectrum of racial perspectives is Monsignor Ryan, played with fabulous comic sense by Michael Russotto. Every time the Monsignor comes on stage, tensions are high and tempers of brewing, and within seconds he finds a way to relieve them, if not in the characters on stage then at least in the audience off. Mr. Russotto also has the comic effects of Scotch on human mobility down to a science.
The production team, led by director David Esbjornson, handles the challenges of in-the-round performance like true masters. Kat Conley’s sets are arranged like clusters on a game board, with Allen Lee Hughes’s lights shifting our focus effortlessly. Paul Tazewell handles the costumes appropriately 1960’s and Timothy M. Thompson’s sound has nostalgic written all over it. And I’d be remiss if I did not mention the wonderful big hair wigs of Anne Nesmith.
So if you are in need of a little optimism and a renewed sense in the power of people to sit down at a round table and discuss their differences and have those differences resolved peacefully, and productively, for the benefit of all, then you need to fly, not walk to Arena Stage and see Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a truly uplifting evening of theatre.
Running Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission.
Advisory: appropriate for all audiences
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner plays at the Fichandler Theatre, Arena Stage, 1101 6th Street, SW, Washington, DC, through January 5, 2014. For information click here.