Arena Stage Guess Who’s Coming to DinnerBy Bob Ashby • Dec 7th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Arena Stage: (Info) (Web)
Arena Stage-Fichandler Theatre, Washington DC
Through January 5th
2:30 with intermission
$40-$93 *(Plus Fees)
Reviewed December 5th, 2013
In her comments at a post-show reception opening night, Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith described Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as a conversation in a living or dining room that, she hoped, would inspire such conversations among audience members. Except that the characters in Todd Kreidler’s adaptation of William Rose’s Ocsar-winning screenplay for the 1967 movie often do not so much have conversations as hurl well-crafted speeches at one another, more in the style of the podium than of the living room. Directed by David Esbjornson, the production’s strong cast nevertheless gives the play a powerful emotional impact.
The plot involves a fast-moving courtship between Joanna Drayton (Bethany Anne Lind) and Dr. John Wade Prentice (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), whose full name and title Joanna repeats as though in lights. Dr. Prentice is a wunderkind research physician who, as one review of the movie remarked, seems at age 37 just a step removed from the Nobel Prize. But there is a “situation:” he is black and Joanna is white, a match that her affluent, liberal parents, Matt and Christina Drayton (Tom Key and Tess Malis Kincaid), who always taught her to treat people as individuals, never anticipated. The first act is largely a comedy of discomfiture, as the parents and others react with dropped jaws, silences, and strained politeness to this startling development.
In the movie, these roles were played by Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, and Katherine Hepburn, respectively, and Arena’s actors deserve credit for avoiding any whiff of an attempt at replicating the film performances. Warner’s Prentice, in addition to being smart, polite, and sensitive to the feelings of others, is able to show a touch of insecurity in his nervousness about telling his parents that his fiancée is white. But he persuasively displays strength in standing up to his father and prospective father-in-law when it counts.
Key’s Matt is a tightly wound, angry fellow, brittle when his authority within the family is challenged, almost but not quite to the point of breaking. He is someone who invariably believes that he is rational and right. To bring the story to a happy conclusion, Matt must overcome not only his lingering racial prejudice but also his overweening certainty, and Key shows that this is no easy task for him.
Kincaid’s Christina is a warmer figure, initially nonplussed by her daughter’s sudden decision, but quickly coming to believe that her daughter’s love for John is real and should be honored. A major turning point for Christina is a confrontation with the manager of her art gallery, Hilary St. George (Valerie Leonard), an annoyingly superficial sort whose racist advice to Christina leads to a highly satisfying comeuppance. Christina and Lind’s Joanna, who despite a good deal of girlish giddiness in her characterization also shows some of the family backbone, make a common front against Matt’s stubbornness.
The play’s title refers to an impromptu visit to the Drayton house — instigated by Joanna — by John’s parents (Eugene Lee and Andrea Frye), whose reaction to the marriage parallels that of the Draytons. John’s mother, believing in love, is sympathetic. John’s father, believing that only a lunatic would enter an interracial marriage in a racist world, is apoplectic. The visit becomes the occasion for a series of well-delivered dramatic monologues that dominate Act 2: by Lee about the pain and fear created by racism; by Warner about his need to live his own life as not a black man, but as a man; by Frye on the forgetfulness of men about the passionate connections they have had with their wives; and finally by Key, summarizing the events of the day before announcing his change of heart.
In supporting roles, Michael Russoto and Lynda Gravatt play Monsignor Mike Ryan, a longtime friend of the Draytons, and Matilda (“Tilly”) Binks, the Draytons’ longtime cook/maid. Russoto does what he can with the stock role of the cheerful, kindly Irish priest, dispensing wisdom and Scotch in equal proportions. In Act 1, Gravatt’s Binks is a grouch who is actively hostile to John, whose motives she instinctively distrusts. In Act 2, her outlook suddenly brightens — the apparent trigger being an old song she and John both know — and she joins the other women in supporting the couple.
In adapting the screenplay for the theater, playwright Kriedler makes a number of changes. Some are a matter of updating language, as in the replacement of “Negro” with “black.” The film has a number of locales (e.g., an airport, taxi, art gallery). The one-set play takes place entirely in the Drayton’s living/dining room and terrace, serving to emphasize the drawing room comedy-like structure of the play. The play runs about a half hour longer than the movie, as Kriedler adds material for some of the characters and situations. Hilary and Tilly are both longer roles in the stage version than in the movie. Tilly’s Act 2 conversion has no equivalent in the movie, for example. John’s confrontation with his father is longer and more detailed than in the film. More is made of the emotional consequences of parallel losses that the families have suffered (Joanna’s brother died as a child; John’s first wife and child were killed in an accident). While the filmed screenplay feels tighter and more economical, the additions provide depth and help to round out the characters.
While Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner focuses on race relations, gender relations are just as important to the play. Both fathers, used to being the unquestioned leaders and decision makers in their families, are ultimately forced to yield to the power of the women in their lives who are quicker to adapt to change and unwilling to stand for the unreasoning attachment of their husbands to attitudes that are becoming obsolete. In the film, Matt’s final monologue is still delivered from a position of strength, as he stands and talks to the other seated characters, expressing with gravitas and deep emotion his understanding the parallel between John’s love for Joanna and his for Christina. The words of the monologue are almost the same in the play, but Esbjornson and Key give it a more comic interpretation, losing some strength and dignity in the process.
Like many a drawing-room comedy, the plot of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner uses an arbitrary device to provide tension and raise the stakes, in this case John’s unsolicited, wholly incredible, commitment to marry the love of his life only if her parents fully endorse the union within a few hours of meeting him. John and Matt agree to this proposition without consulting or even informing Joanna, an exercise of male privilege if ever there was. In the movie, Joanna barely bats an eye when she hears of this; in the play she at least offers a brief, rather muted, objection. Arena’s recent production of Love in Afghanistan provides an instructive contrast. In that play, Duke, an American entertainer performing in Afghanistan, seeks to protect Roya, a young interpreter he cares about, by getting her father’s consent to marry her, informing her only after the fact. She becomes furious and rejects his offer. Especially given Kreidler’s intent to tell the 1967 story “in a way that was for the 21st century” (Meet The Artists Q&A at page 13 of the program), he might have considered giving Joanna greater agency in the matter.
Also like the characters in Love in Afghanistan, Dr. John Wade Prentice and the Draytons exist on the affluent and best-educated edges of their society. The primary tension comes from Matt’s doubts about the wisdom of his daughter marrying even a brilliant and successful doctor who happens to be black. Were John a bricklayer, we would have a very different story, one that explored class as well as race distinctions.
As one expects from a high-quality professional theater, the technical side of the production is impeccable. Kat Conley’s busily-furnished living room and terrace set is functional and as tastefully restrained as one would expect from the home of a newspaper publisher in the late 1960s. A nice choice, differing from the movie, is that the plants on the terrace are cactus rather than showier flowers. Paul’s Tazewell’s costumes — like the set using primarily muted colors — and Allen Lee Hughes’ lighting design are likewise appropriate and unobtrusive. Sound designer Timothy M. Thompson relies on period popular songs for background, blessedly avoiding “The Glory of Love.”
Appearing in the same year as the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia, which overturned state laws banning interracial marriage, the movie dealt with what was then a loudly debated issue. In addressing this issue, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner paints its themes in broad strokes. Even people who generally fight on the side of the progressive angels may have unexamined prejudices they need to recognize and rethink. Race-based assumptions about individuals’ motives are not limited to members of one race. The content of one’s character truly does matter more than the color of one’s skin. Parents should trust and support the feelings of their well-brought up, successful adult offspring. And love really must ultimately conquer all.
Scarcely anyone would find these statements even remotely controversial nowadays. Yet Smith is right to assert that the racial conversation in America is far from happily concluded, as the racial subtext of personal attacks on President Obama and overt hostility to Latino and Muslim immigrants attest. In business, employment, education, and a variety of other areas, what lawyers call “the continuing effects of past discrimination” persist, and talking about the intersection of the wider social trends with personal lives has continuing value.
Photos by Teresa Wood
- Matilda Binks: Lynda Gravatt
- Hilary St. George: Valerie Leonard
- Christina Drayton: Tess Malis Kincaid
- Matt Drayton: Tom Key
- Joanna Drayton: Bethany Anne Lind
- Doctor John Prentice: Malcolm-Jamal Warner
- Monsignor Ryan: Michael Russotto
- John Prentice Sr: Eugene Lee
- Mary Prentice: Andrea Frye
- Playwright: Todd Kreidler
- Director: David Esbjornson
- Set Designer: Kat Conley
- Costume Designer: Paul Tazewell
- Lighting Designer: Allen Lee Hughes
- Wig Designer: Anne Nesmith
- Stage Manager: William E. Cruttenden III
- Assistant Stage Manager: Michael D. Ward
- Dialect/Vocal Coach: Lynn Watson
- New York Casting: David Caparelliotis
- Casting Director: Dan Pruksarnukul
- Dramaturg: Linda Lombardi
- Technical Director: Scott Schreck
- Properties Director: Chuck Fox
- Master Electrician: Christopher V. Lewton
- Sound Designer/Director: Timothy M. Thompson
- Costume Director: Joseph P. Salasovich
- Costume Shop Manager: T. Tyler Stumpf
- Directing Assistant: Ryan Maxwell
- Show Carpenter: James Mulhern
- Props Artisan: Marion Hampton Dube
- Light Board Operator: Scott Folsom
- Assistant to Lighting Designer: Nicki Rosecrans
- Sound Engineer: Aaron Allen
- Wardrobe Supervisor: Emily Grace Blackstone
- Wigs/Hair Supervisor: Vincent Hill
- Overhire Stitchers: Dorothy Barnes Driggers and Natalie M Kurczew
- New York Casting Associate: Lauren Port
- Overhire Painter: Mimi Li
Disclaimer: Arena Stage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9977.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.