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?

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