Fathom Events' "A Streetcar Named Desire": Sex and the City

Gillian Anderson (with Ben Foster in rear) in "A Streetcar Named Desire"
(photo: John Persson)

We are probably all of us at some point or other in our lives dependent on the kindness of strangers. Certainly Blanche Dubois, the heroine of Tennessee Williams’ classic play (his second major work) “A Streetcar Named Desire”, has always been just that. In the Young Vic London production (the fastest selling show in its history), still set in New Orleans but not in 1947 but the present day, she continues to fascinate in her iron-willed vulnerability. Blanche is especially compelling when portrayed by an actress of the caliber of Gillian Anderson, opposite an equally commanding performance of the brutish Stanley Kowalski as played by Ben Foster. On a par with the two leads are Vanessa Kirby as Stanley’s wife Stella and Corey Johnson as Mitch, making a stunning quartet. Helmed by Australian director Benedict Andrews, with a continually revolving steel framed set by Swiss designer Magda Willi, this is a surprisingly fresh and relevant production. The rest of the impressive cast include Eunice Hubbel (Clare Burt), a Mexican Woman (Lachele Carl), Steve (Branwell Donaghey), a Young Collector (Otto Farrant), Pablo (Troy Glasgow), another unnamed Woman (Clare Prempeh) and a Doctor (Nicholas Gecks) and Nurse (Stephanie Jacob). This is a raw, sexy production with a strong violent subtext. It’s an unusual emphasis (especially the portrayal of Stella’s neediness and competitiveness with her sister for her husband) that makes the play seem all the more contemporary and uncomfortably pertinent. As Blanche herself says, she doesn’t tell the truth, she tells “the truth as it ought to be”. By the end of the play, after Blanche, who entered having lost her home, leaves having lost her mind, it’s a shattering experience all around, for the audience as well, largely due to the extraordinarily compelling level of performing.

The technical contributions are all top drawer, from the Music by Alex Baranowski (utilizing the music of Jimi Hendrix, Chris Isaak and Patsy Cline), to the Costume Design by Victoria Behr, Lighting Design by Jon Clark, Sound Design by Paul Arditti, and Fight Direction by Bret Yount. But it’s the set that commands one’s attention with its constant changing of perspective. This works in the theater, as noted in the introduction to the broadcast, to make each audience member’s experience unique, different from every other theatergoer. In this HD broadcast of the production, it’s sometimes distracting, but this could have been avoided with more carefully synchronized camera rehearsal.

Williams prefaced the published version of the play with a quote from “The Broken Tower” by Hart Crane: “And so it was that I entered the broken world to trace the visionary company of love, its voice an instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled) but not for long to hold each desperate choice”. Blanche is the epitome of desperation, which was a product of the era in which the play was written, a time of post-war political and emotional uncertainty and insecurity. That it speaks to us in much the same way in such a timely manner is sobering. As do all greatest works of literature, it deals with universal themes and very familiar conflicts. Blanche’s last line in the play is, literally, the famous one: “Whoever you are…I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”. After Stanley soothes Stella, the very last line of the work, spoken by Steve at the card table, is a mundane call back to reality: “This game is seven-card stud.” And there you have it. Life goes on, for Stanley and Stella, which will always be the same, yet thanks to their exposure to Blanche’s fantasies, in some fundamental ways, forever changed. As are we.

Just announced by Fathom Events: the Broadway production of “Of Mice and Men” with James Franco and Chris O’Dowd, November 6th at a participating theater near you. Also upcoming from National Theatre Live” are an encore of “Frankenstein” as well as two new productions, “John” on December 9th and “Treasure Island” on January 22nd.


PEM's "Calder": Master Builder in Motion

Calder's "Blue Feather" c. 1948
Sheet metal, wire and paint. Calder Foundation, New York
Copyright: 2014 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo: Calder Foundation, New York/Art Resource, NY
The current special exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum (or PEM), in Salem, “Calder and Abstraction: from Avant-Garde to Iconic”, now on view through January 4, 2015, is a revelation even for those who have always loved Alexander Calder’s mobiles and stabiles. In its only East Coast venue (organized by the L.A. County Museum of Art and the Calder Foundation), it consists of forty of the sculptor’s works, both full sized and maquettes, all made between the 1930’s and the 1960’s. Even for those quite familiar with Calder’s style and use of color, form and motion, it’s a unique opportunity to appreciate his work in such a graceful and serene setting.

The installation is so spectacular it just about takes one’s breath away, but fortunately there are several areas in which to sit and watch his mobiles and their shadows work their magic, and to meditate on how they so beautifully fill their space. The soft background music (for example, compositions by Erik Satie) completes the totally engaging experience. But it is Calder’s words one should also attend. He stated that there is in his work an underlying sense of form, namely the system of the universe, which is “a rather large mobile to work from”. He added that “just as one can compose colors, or forms, so one can compose motion.” Tellingly, he also noted that “a mobile in motion leaves an invisible wake, or rather, each element leaves an individual wake behind its individual self, a slow, gentle impulse.” Above all else, his creations convey either the freedom from earth that results from an object freely floating, or the solid foundation that supports a multitude of forms.

This is one exhibition one simply can’t rush through if it’s to be fully experienced. The stark white walls and chairs invite a more leisurely and contemplative visit, which is difficult to describe adequately. It has to be seen and thus felt to be as effectively stunning as it is. It may well be the single most beautifully installed exhibit of his (or any other artist’s) work ever composed. And composed you will be.

While there, if you haven’t already done so, do take in the Yin Yu Tang, a Chinese House, with timed entries (and a self-guided audio tour) all for a small additional entry charge. Over two centuries old, with sixteen bedrooms and occupied in China until the 1980’s, it’s unique in this country. It’s well worth the trip to PEM in and of itself.


SpeakEasy's "Far from Heaven": Musical Mellow Drama

Jennifer Ellis in "Far from Heaven"
(photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

“What does it feel like being the only one?” That’s the central question at the core of SpeakEasy Stage Company’s initial production of the current season, the musical “Far From Heaven”. Based on the 2002 film of the same name written and directed by Todd Haynes, it’s in turn inspired by the Douglas Sirk film melodramas of the 50’s (such as “Imitation of Life” and “All That Heaven Allows”). The musical boasts a book by Richard Greenberg (very closely following Haynes’ Oscar-nominated original screenplay, at least in the first act), with a score by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, the Tony-nominated duo from the musical version of “Grey Gardens”. It premiered at the Williamstown Festival and had a limited run at New York’s Playwright’s Horizon last season. Easily the most anticipated show of this season, this production provides a welcome opportunity to enjoy one of the finest musical scores in recent memory, with a creative team that evokes on stage the lushness and beauty of the original film. It’s a must-see for any musical theater buff, a joy for both the eye and ear.

The book, however, is far from the celestial heights of the score, with several non-credible coincidences and some underwritten roles. (This can be problematic in a work that lives so much below the surface). The time is 1957; the place, Hartford, Connecticut (though it seems to be more of a suburb). Cathy Whitaker (Jennifer Ellis) and her husband Frank (Jared Troilo), a company executive, are in a picture-perfect marriage in a picture-perfect community, seemingly content with their superficial conventional lives. After an effective tableau featuring some of the relationships within the sizeable cast of characters, Cathy first rhapsodizes about her favorite season, Autumn, with “the picture postcard right out our door.” She’s idolized by her son David (Josh Sussman) and daughter Janice (Audree Hedequist), and her closest friend Eleanor Fine (Aimee Doherty), whose husband Stan (Terrence O’Malley) is an executive who works with Frank. The first glimmer of unrest arises with Frank’s arrest for a misdemeanor. Meanwhile, Cathy is praised in an interview by Mrs. Leacock (Kerry A. Dowling) from the local society paper: “a standard other wives can strive for”. They are interrupted when Cathy confronts an unfamiliar black man in her garden, who turns out to be Raymond Deagen (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), the son of her late gardener. The reporter records it as Cathy’s being “kind to Negroes”, which amuses Cathy’s friends when they come by for cocktails to gossip about their sex lives. Disturbed by their sexual revelations, she walks into her garden, where Raymond returns, having found her lost scarf. An awkward discussion follows, with Raymond advising her “you need to know what grows in your growing zone.” (It’s a pivotal moment expressed in song, comparing “Sun and Shade” in a somewhat unsubtle metaphor). When Frank calls to tell her he’s working late again, she asks her maid Sybil (Carolyn Saxon) to prepare a plate of food Cathy can take to him at his office as a surprise, thus accidentally discovering Frank’s secrets. Later, she’s seen talking with Raymond and his teenage daughter Sarah (Sophia Mack) at an art exhibition opening, as they agree that “Miró invites you to believe the world is filled with miracles.” Still later, Cathy and Frank have an altercation in which he accidentally injures her. Raymond finds her weeping in the garden and invites her to accompany him, first on a delivery errand, then to a restaurant patronized by blacks, after she naively asks him what it’s like being the “only one...looking for kindred spirits, and finding none”.

This rendezvous also does not go unobserved. Gossip prevails in their small-minded community, forcing Cathy to act against her own wishes. Even Eleanor begins to suspect her as she warns that “people make their choices in life, for good or for bad.” On vacation in Miami, Cathy is blissfully unaware of Frank’s wandering eyes, until upon returning home he confesses to her, “I never had a clue; I never knew how much I never knew”, and they plan the rest of their lives, recalling all the everyday minutiae of “Christmas, summers, painters, plumbers.” Cathy goes to speak with Raymond, and he tells her he’s learned his lesson about mixing their two worlds, urging her to have a picture in her mind, to “see the world as it should be.” She returns home sadder but wiser, after finding a Spring-themed “picture postcard…though now it’s not as close to heaven as it used to seem…that was just a dream.”

As music drama, this work’s complex score is, as noted above, as close to heaven as it gets. It’s unabashedly romantic, even operatic. One is reluctant to describe the score as such, as this can be the kiss of death for the popularity of a musical, but the orchestrations, monologues and repeated motifs and reprises (such as the several “Table Talks”, “Office Talk” and “Phone Talk”) do tend to support such a designation. So does the frequent use of recitative and the fact that it is virtually through-composed, often with jazz overtones and lush and lavish underscoring of singspiel-like passages. (In fact, it cries out for operatically trained voices). It’s an evocative score, fully in sync with the film version’s music by Elmer Bernstein, which itself was an homage to the Warner Brothers movies of the 50’s. The standout numbers, such as “The Only One”, “A Picture in Your Mind”, and the aforementioned “Tuesdays, Thursdays”, rival those of “Grey Gardens”, which is no small praise. The score does suffer with the present trimmed-down orchestration, but the choice of Scott Edmiston as Director (also Professor of the Practice and Chair of the Theatre Department at Northeastern University) was an inspired one, given his background with operas and music dramas, such as Speakeasy’s “Light in the Piazza” (which this score resembles). He has commented elsewhere on the core of the work and “the smart, stylish surface of 1950’s America (that) masks lives of longing and love that cannot be realized.” The various plots might seem almost quaint to a modern audience in their parochialism but are stifling nonetheless. The Musical Direction is by Steven Bergman, with excellent movement and Choreography by David Connolly. The Set Design by Eric Levenson is brilliantly effective, along with Karen Perlow’s Lighting Design (free and colorful one moment, with prison-like bars the next) in capturing the look and spirit of those old movie melodamas. The Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker is just about perfect in evoking the era, as gorgeous and colorful as the golden age of films. They help create harmony, orally, visually and creatively. Adding to the performance were the remaining cast members, most in several roles, include Will McGarrahan, Tyler Lenhart, Carla Martinez, Jennifer Mischley, Ellen Peterson, Rachel Gianna Tassio, Darren Bunch, and Michael Levesque.

While some of the cast had occasional struggles with the high register of some of the score, this will probably be overcome with more familiarity and comfort with its extraordinarily challenging demands. The problem with some of the dialogue (“chop chop”, “tally ho”) and character development is more of an issue. Ellis manages to convince even as a hopelessly naïve housewife, but Troilo has no chance to garner any sympathy as we’re barely introduced to his character before he’s abruptly drowning in angst and deception. Parent conveys the decency and humanity of his role without straying to the overly saccharine. Hedequist and Mack are very natural actresses, and Sussman succeeds in providing what little comedy the plot contains (though he needs to avoid peeking at the audience). Saxon portrays her wise and calming servile role with dignity. Dowling as the fawning reporter and Will McGarrahan as a chill-inducing therapist show once again how versatile and valuable these local stalwarts are. But it is Doherty (whom we’ve seen in the past in serious and comic roles, singing, dancing, and even playing musical spoons), as the supremely hypocritical “friend”, a Jewish matron, who has the juiciest role, speaking volumes with a simple sigh.

With such a marvelous amalgam of smart performances and stylish production, there’s no reason in hell to miss “Far from Heaven”.


Odyssey Opera's "Dead City": The Living End

Jay Hunter Morris of "Dead City"
On those rare occasions when the stars are all in alignment, one can experience truly magical music. Boston Odyssey Opera’s most recent performance, given in Jordan Hall, a concert of a rarely heard opera, Die tote Stadt (“The Dead City”), was one such event. On a scale of one to ten, this was an eleven. A three-act work composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold with a libretto by “Paul Schott” (actually a pseudonym for the composer himself and his father Julius), this is an opera almost a century old that could have been written yesterday. Premiered simultaneously in Hamburg and Cologne in 1920, it was based on the 1892 novel “Bruges-la-Morte” by Georges Ridenbach. The theme of dealing with the loss of a loved one struck a chord with audiences that had recently themselves dealt with World War I. Its initial popularity didn’t endure (being banned by the Nazi regime of course didn’t help), but in recent years it has found renewed favor in productions in San Francisco, Vienna, Australia, and especially New York City Opera before coming now to Jordan Hall. This performance, which included the New World Chorale and a Youth Chorus consisting of members the Boston City Singers and the Cambridge Children’s Chorus, was under the able conducting of Odyssey Opera Artistic Director and General Director Gil Rose. As Rose himself described this work, it’s a musical journey “down dark and twisting passages”, yet a terrifically rewarding one.

The opera opens with the maid Brigitta (mezzo soprano Erica Brookhyser) showing Frank (baritone Weston Hurt) the “shrine from the past” that her master Paul (tenor Jay Hunter Morris) has created in honor of Marie (soprano Meagan Miller), his beloved late wife, with photos, paintings, and even a braid of her hair. Paul, a young man in Bruges, Belgium, at the end of the 19th century, has been overcome with grief. Frank advises him to remember his wife in a different way, by moving on with his life, which enrages Paul to the point where he reveals he has seen, on the streets of Bruges, a woman who is a perfect image of Marie and has invited her back to his home. The woman, Marietta, (also sung by Miller), a beautiful young dancer, arrives and attempts to interest him with song and dance, including the familiar aria “Glück, das mir verblieb” (Mariettas Lied or “Lute Song”), frequently performed in concert recitals. She gets bored after her efforts fail. Anxious about his own indecisiveness (that is, between his memories of Marie and the charms of Marietta), he collapses and begins to hallucinate, seeing Marie’s ghost, who first begs him not to forget her, then tells him to move on with his own life. This initial dream sequence hardly helps his confusion. In the second act, Paul and Frank fight outside Marietta’s home over a key to her house. Her dance troupe arrives and Fritz, the Pierrot of the group (beautifully sung by baritone Thomas Meglioranza) sings a love song, also familiar from concert recitals. Marietta dances flirtatiously, making Paul declare he never loved her. She then seduces him and takes him home. In the last act, Marietta is found in Marie’s shrine, angering Paul. She accuses him of hypocrisy, dancing with a braid of Marie’s hair, which Paul then uses to strangle her. When the lights come up the hair is where it had been preserved, and a very much alive Marietta arrives for a forgotten umbrella. Frustrated, she leaves, and Frank enters. Paul tells him he is through with the fantasy of Marietta and decides to leave Bruges, the dead city, to start his life anew. Other characters expertly portrayed included Victorin (Frank Kelley), Juliette (Sara Heaton), Lucienne (Janna Baty), Count Albert (Alan Schnieder), and Gaston (Jonas Budris).

Korngold, well known for his lush film scores (notably the universally acclaimed music for “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, considered one of the finest examples of the genre ever composed), wrote many other compositions in so many genres that his versatility is unquestioned. The two principal performers in this production are versatile as well. Morris, a true heldentenor who famously brought the house down when he stepped in as Seigfried in the Met’s Ring Cycle, and the title role in San Diego’s “Moby Dick” on PBS, will repeat the role of Frank in “Dead City” in Poland; Miller, a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, will repeat her role of Marie/Marietta in Tokyo and Hamburg. The current performance was yet another feather in their caps, sung with meticulous care and feeling by both of these artists as well as the supporting cast and choruses. Morris looked authentically surprised at the overwhelming reception he (as well as the rest of the cast) received from the wildly enthusiastic sold-out house. The conducting by Rose and his orchestra received a well-deserved standing ovation. For the eighty-four musicians in the pit and sixty-three singers spread throughout Jordan Hall, this was a triumph.

Some might find Korngold’s work a bit bombastic or overly romantic, but not this audience, (or this critic), as his music was not derivative but evocative of Strauss, Wagner, Puccini and, yes, even Miklos Rosza (composer of the score for “Ben Hur”). It was immediately accessible on first hearing. The libretto, as is the case with so many operas, was frequently rather odd but never boring. As Brigitta sings at the beginning of the first act, “everything is old and ghostly”, and her master has said of the dead city: “Bruges and I are one”. Paul’s loss is poignant: “our love is, was and shall be”. Even the stage directions are melancholy in the final scene: “It is bleak morning”. Yet in the end it is life that Paul chooses, metaphorically leaving his old grieving self as he leaves the ancient “dead” city.

Odyssey Opera Company continues to provide local opera lovers with opportunities to experience less frequently heard works, such as their “Zanetto”, “Susanna’s Secret“” and most notably “Un giorno di regno” last Spring. Their next offering will be a double bill consisting of operas by Dominick Argento, “A Water Bird Talk” and “Miss Havisham’s Wedding”, to be given on November 22nd and 23rd at the Modern Theatre at Suffolk University, followed on December 7th by Tobias Picker’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” at Jordan Hall. Since the concert of “Dead City” was completely sold out way in advance, one might well make haste to secure tickets for the remainder of this company’s season. Thus far in the company’s brief but stellar history, they have been true to their mission of rediscovering musical treats. In “Die tote Stadt” they have restored to its rightful recognition a neglected gem.


ART's "Finding Neverland": You Can Go Home Again

A dog, an overgrown boy, and four Darlings of "Finding Neverland"

Thomas Wolfe was wrong; one can return to Neverland. This past full week of theater openings included (unprecedented for this review site) a re-visit to a previously praised production, namely ART's musical "Finding Neverland". Amazingly, on second seeing it became apparent that the play and its players have deepened, improved, grown. Without exception, every member of the cast bettered her or his prior efforts. More profound familiarity with their roles has resulted in nuances simmering just beneath the surface. The score seems, on second hearing, even more beautifully integrated into this charming and charmed creation. Jeremy Jordan continues to astonish, Laura Michelle Kelly shines even more lustrously than before, and Michael McGrath's punch lines land just as freshly and perfectly as ever. The boys, Aidan Gemme, Alex Dreier, Sawyer Nunes and Hayden Signoretti, are even more captivating, and Paul Slade Smith as the aristocratic actor Mr.Henshaw was priceless. Special mention should be made of the Pluto-perfect performance of Thayne Jasperson as Porthos the dog, unaccountably not singled out when the production was first reviewed here; he's so believable he's easy to take for granted, but hysterically funny. The show is with us for just another two weeks and has been selling out, but they do sell standing room midday (the day of performance). One piece of advice: Stand for it!

The End


Trinity Rep's "Ivanov": Russian to Judgment

The Cast of  "Ivanov"
(photo: Mark Turek )

Anton Chekov might have loved Trinity Repertory Company’s first production of the new season, his 1887 play “Ivanov”. Or hated it. Or both. One of his five masterworks (the others being “The Seagull”, “Uncle Vanya”, “The Three Sisters” and “The Cherry Orchard”), it was his first serious full-length play, a portent of themes to come, with its portrayal of Russian melancholia. Is there in all literature a more unhappy and morose bunch than the Russian landed gentry? They wallow in their incessant boredom, even in Chekov’s “comedies”. So it surely is with this production, in a new translation by Trinity’s Artistic Director Curt Columbus, directed by Associate Director Brian McEleney, who also helmed last season’s opener, the memorable “Grapes of Wrath”. As Columbus has stated, this version stresses the playwright’s “humor and humanity…the comic Russian Hamlet”; this may have guided him into this very misguided translation so heavily dependent on anachronistic colloquialisms and verbal slapstick. McEleney notes that Chekov is “just writing about a guy, ‘Johnson’ and (everyone‘s) strange, neurotic, contradictory behavior”; this may account for the fact that the usually incomparable resident company seems to have been directed to enact their roles with the hyperventilated pacing of a runaway train.

Chekov shows what the consequences might be when people rush to judgment about one another, whether about marital unfaithfulness or suspect motives. The story revolves around the titular Nikolai Ivanov (Stephen Thorne), whom we first meet in a bathtub (and briefly naked outside it). He is a landowner and government official with a wife of five years, Anna (Rebecca Gibel), whose prior renouncement of Judaism and conversion to Russian Orthodoxy cut her off from the dowry he expected to acquire. He is deeply in debt to Zinaida (Anne Scurria), a moneylender married to district council chairman Lebedev (Timothy Crowe), with a daughter of marriageable age, Sasha (Marina Shay) who happens to be infatuated with Ivanov. Anna’s moralistic physician, Dr. Lvov (Richard Williams), has told Ivanov she is gravely ill (from her first appearance, with very conspicuous consumption) and must go to the Crimea to recuperate. Lacking the funds to enable this, Ivanov flirts with the idea of a connection with the wealthy Sasha, then actually does flirt with her, overseen by Anna. She confronts Ivanov with his infidelity, which angers Ivanov enough to reveal the true nature of her illness to her. A year later, after Anna’s death, Ivanov and Sasha prepare to marry, but Lvov intervenes, publicly accusing Ivanov of marrying solely for her money. Others, even those who had been critical of him in the past, come to Ivanov’s defense, even challenging Lvov to duels. This excites Ivanov, who takes out his gun. As with several subsequent Chekov works, this “comedy” ends up, paradoxically, a tragedy. As the playwright himself put it, his characters are “just as complicated and just as simple” as in real life; he felt that “misfortune follows happiness (or the other way around). A person cannot be healthy and cheery through their entire life…one must be prepared for anything, and consider everything to be inevitably essential.” Rather than question the existence of God, he affirmed: “No, believe in man!” This would appear to exclude one huge segment of society, incidentally, given the play’s explicitly anti-Semitic remarks, which are, sadly, straight out of Chekov’s text.

The cast, directed to speak for the most part in a declamatory way, are all clearly having a ball and remain in character throughout, especially Scurria, who is a delight to watch, and Thorne, doggedly intense. Also featured in the ensemble are Stephen Berenson, Angela Brazil, Barbara Meek, Fred Sullivan, Jr., Joe Wilson, Jr., Ian McNeely, Sophie Netanel, Andrew Polec and Max Wolkowitz. All act, as they have obviously been directed to do, with a total lack of restraint or subtlety, at least until the last moment, which is suddenly simple and quietly effective. The technical creativity includes Scenic Design by Michael McGarty, who also designed “Grapes of Wrath”, with a minimalist set (fortuitous, since after the cast got through chewing it, there wouldn’t be much of it left). The Original Music Composition by Ian McNeely is in harmony with the free spirited nature of the direction, but contributes little other than length. The Lighting Design by John Ambrosone (fairly harsh), opulent Costume Design by Toni Spadafora (cleverly tattered as though from a consignment shop, which would have been entirely appropriate for everyone’s strained finances), Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz, and Voice and Speech Direction by Thom Jones, are all contributive to the overall feel of the play. The proceedings are certainly never boring, just numbing, even given this shortened version of the play. Your enjoyment of this production will likely depend on your tolerance for broadly played farce. Very broadly. In this approach, unceasingly, skit happens.

Chekov’s writing, described today as realism which essentially marked the initiation of modern theater, fundamentally resists pigeon-holing. As might an unpredictable party guest, he may be witty one moment, melancholic the next. In our own times such a personage might even be blithely viewed as bi-polar. As the youth of today might put it, or for that matter any number of Chekov’s characters in this translation might languidly remark, “whatever”. (Perhaps the only colloquialism they missed). Somewhere, Chekov is smiling. Or crying. Or both.

Huntington's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner": Rare or Well Done?

Malcolm Jamal-Warner and Will Lyman in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"
(photo:  Paul Moratta)
Huntington Theatre Company’s first production of the season is a surprising one. Instead of their more typical groundbreaking fare, it’s a staged version of a film released almost half a decade ago, Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. Those of us who found the movie totally lacking in subtlety and self-consciously liberal (even while acknowledging Kramer’s bona fides as a truly progressive filmmaker) might wonder at the choice of such dated material for a transition to today’s stage. The casting of two major roles from popular television series of the distant past was worrisome as well. Keeping the play in San Francisco in 1967, at a comfortable distance from today’s racial problems, didn’t bode well either. That was then, and this is now, and the former taboo of interracial marriage has been overtaken by far more insidious displays of prejudice.

Fortunately for audiences today, this production, on a pure level of entertainment at least, has resulted in an enjoyably humorous, if undeniably slight, piece of theatre. Everything about the show speaks to the professionalism of everyone involved, both on and behind the stage. Even the choice of the two former sitcom stars turns out to be a felicitous one, for Malcolm-Jamal Warner is a commanding presence and Julia Duffy displays consummate skill in timing (though she could use some attention to projection). Thanks to their efforts as well as the rest of a terrific cast, the opening night attendees were in frequent hysterics. Audiences familiar with the film will recall that it’s the story of a somewhat naïve young woman, Joanna (Meredith Forlenza) who unexpectedly arrives at the home of her parents (Duffy and Will Lyman) from a stay in Hawaii with more than a festive lei (no pun intended), namely with her new fiancé who happens to be African-American (Warner), and a world-renowned doctor to boot. The film, and this adaptation, stack the deck too much to be credible; it survived partly because of Kramer’s reputation and partly on the strength of the superb acting of three of its four leads, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, and of course the stunningly handsome Sidney Poitier, with a strong supporting cast, except for one klinker. (Kindness forbids mentioning the performance of the real-life relative of one of the leads; even the most progressive celebrities can be guilty of nepotism at times).

First and foremost, let it be said that this play (as with any adaptation from another medium) should be assessed on its own merits and/or deficits. This version is adapted by Todd Kreidler (who most recently wrote the book for the short-lived musical, “Holler If You Hear Me”) and directed by David Esbjornson (who also directed Huntington’s memorable production of “All My Sons”). From the moment Forlenza, in a exposition-heavy introduction, creates the perfect optimistic tone, without overdoing her character’s unrealistic attitude, we’re in the very capable hands of a stellar ensemble. The doctor’s parents, very well played by Adriane Lenox and Lonnie Farmer, the maid Matilda Binks, or “Tilly”, perfectly captured by Lynda Gravátt, and the obnoxiously bigoted art dealer Hilary, deliciously portrayed by Wendy Rich Stetson, were all faultless, as was the ever-astonishing Lyman, a local treasure if there ever was one, delivering the lengthy “eleven o’clock number”, a sort of “summation to the jury” in which his character rather suddenly (and conveniently) changes course. As in the film (in a role that earned a supporting Oscar), however, it’s the family friend Monsignor Ryan, here beautifully done by Patrick Shea, who steals the show. Curiously for a play purporting to be anti-stereotype, it’s a dishearteningly dated character as written, namely the Irish Catholic priest with a fondness for scotch. Still, it’s one of the several safely funny themes in a show that’s fundamentally a very well-done sitcom, which is rare indeed.

The technical credits are, as always with Huntington’s crew, quite remarkable. The Scenic Design by Dane Laffrey, with a judiciously employed turntable, is especially lovely and versatile, though it lacks a single work of art, rather astonishing for the home of an art dealer. The Costume Design by Paul Tazewell captures the period, and the Lighting Design by Allen Lee Hughes (gradually evolving from dawn to dusk) and Sound Design by Ben Emerson are effectively harmonious.

There are moments when the play hints at what it might have been. As the families finally head into dinner, Joanna gently but firmly leads her future father-in-law on her arm, not just to the table but to a different future. Earlier, he had been sitting outside the house in his car until it occurred to him he might well be suspected of contemplating burglary in the all-white upscale neighborhood (perhaps this adaptation’s most honest and timely reference). What remains is the question of the credibility and relevance of the play’s plot. Putting aside the more obvious clichés (the frequent conveniently timed exits and entrances, for example) and the occasionally heavy-handed dialogue (most egregious, Hillary’s “the chocolate lost its flavor”), is acceptance of interracial marriage something about which we should be complacent and proud? Fifty years later, this work seems like an artifact, as there are issues in our society that are far more pertinent and troubling. One might ask about this particular "Dinner": Where's the beef?