By Kyle Osborne
When the film, “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” opened on New Year’s Day, 1968, the Civil Rights movement was just barely in the rear view mirror, many wounds still fresh, but enough distance (and change) that racial, uh, discomfort could be mined for comedy. The set-up of inter-racial marriage was still illegal in parts of the country-would audiences respond?
Boy, they sure did. A critical and commercial hit (let’s not forget that it was Tracy and Hepburn’s last time together onscreen and that a young actor named Sidney Poitier had a pivotal role) the film seemed to fit right into the groove of the times.
More than 40 years later, and now adapted for the stage, one wondered if the lush production at Arena Stage would be as dated as a cardigan sweater with elbow pads. It’s 2013—are we not in a “post-racial” country with an African-American President? How could this material possibly be relevant today?
And then you turn on cable news and the anchorwoman is saying that Jesus and Santa are white. Or a widely popular reality show stars a man who suggests that black people were “happy” in the pre-Civil Rights era. Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson was quoted as saying, “Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
Yeah, so, about that “relevancy” thing? This play is not only not dated, it’s timely. Now, don’t get me wrong, “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” is hilarious, rather gentle, and as harmless as a PG-13 movie (like the 2003 remake with Ashton Kutcher). It makes its points in the breeziest, most entertaining ways. In fact, it tweaks “liberals” who think they are ahead of society in the late 60’s, but must dig deep to confront how they really feel. In other words, don’t be afraid of it being too heavy. It’s actually the perfect play to see with friends and family over the holidays.
The set-up is in the title; a white daughter of well-to-do parents (who have an African-American maid) is bringing her fiancé home. And he’s a Doctor! And well respected in parts of the world. And…he’s black. Womp, womp. And just to take it further, his parents are coming for dinner, too, and they have no idea that their son is with a white woman. So there you go—it’s farce like Frasier, and it’s funny. And it’s still set in the 60’s, which means we can admire the gorgeous wardrobe by Costume Designer Paul Tazewell, while feeling just a teensy bit superior to characters who aren’t as enlightened as we think we are.
The cast is excellent across the board, but Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Dr. John Prentice, gets top billing, thanks to his fame from “The Cosby Show” in the 80’s. Warner’s work is just fine, but Prentice isn’t the most interesting character in the play; No, that would be the role of father of the daughter (Tom Key as Matt Drayton, hits the comedic high notes while believably portraying the dismay that Dad is going through). Similarly, the other father in the cast, Eugene Lee (John Prentice, Sr.) proves to be an astute physical comedian-even his walk is tonally perfect, but you believe the anguish that’s surely putting a hole in his stomach lining.
The play’s scene-stealer, by design, is Lynda Gravatt. As the maid, Matilda, she sees and hears everything. Sometimes her character can bring the house down with a well-timed, “Mmm-Hmm.” Her counter-part, the great Michael Russotto, playing an Irish priest who is amused with the goings-on, also carries away a few scenes in his pocket, always exiting with a laugh-line—both for himself and the audience.
Adapting a movie into a play cannot have been easy, but Todd Kreideler’s end result mostly stands on its own, perhaps simmering just a beat or two too long before things come to a boil.
A throwback in the best ways and as current as something conceived yesterday, “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” will make you wish you could stay for dessert and coffee.
“Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” continues at Arena Stage through January 5. Tickets are available via Arena Stage’s website. http://tickets.arenastage.org/single/psDetail.aspx?psn=16211