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Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – Continues the Dialogue – Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
December 9, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

(L to R) Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Dr. John Prentice, Bethany Anne Lind as Joanna Drayton, Tess Malis Kincaid as Christina Drayton and Tom Key as Matt Drayton - Photo by Teresa Wood.

(L to R) Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Dr. John Prentice, Bethany Anne Lind as Joanna Drayton, Tess Malis Kincaid as Christina Drayton and Tom Key as Matt Drayton – Photo by Teresa Wood.

It’s as rare as hen’s teeth for an iconic movie to be adapted for the stage… especially one that made its debut forty-six years ago.  A more familiar formula is turning a successful play or book into a blockbuster movie.  But in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, William Rose’s Academy Award-winning film script, playwright Todd Kriedler has done the unusual by taking a film known for its big name stars and created a comic drama that is certain to become an American classic.   The question on everybody’s lips is, “Is it still relevant today?”

You may remember the original, a classic starring Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier, in which a sophisticated couple’s well-educated daughter brings home a highly educated and much older Black man for dinner, only for her to reveal their love.  “My parents love surprises.  Surprises make them listen,” she assures him.  The liberal-minded Christina (Tess Malis Kincaid) and Matt Drayton (Tom Key), she a gallery owner, he a newspaperman, struggle to accept their children’s romance.  “Can I lay down on the ground now?” Christina asks, trying to regain her composure.  Basing their disapproval on society’s unwillingness to accept interracial marriage and the struggles they predict will ensue, it all seems clear cut until we discover that Prentice’s parents also share those fears.  It’s important to remember that the film came out the same year the archaically titled “Anti-miscegenation” laws were struck down by the U. S. Supreme Court.

(L to R) Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Dr. John Prentice and Bethany Anne Lind as Joanna Drayton - Photo by Teresa Wood.

(L to R) Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Dr. John Prentice and Bethany Anne Lind as Joanna Drayton – Photo by Teresa Wood.

In contemporary America where we have a bi-racial President and a recently elected New York City intermarried Mayor, do we still need to examine race relations?  The answer from my informal survey is a resounding yes!  There are still societal concerns from White as well as African-American parents.  Whatever the conflicts, real or imagined, the play offers a challenging and continuing dialogue on the subject from both sides and in this play it is handled with great craftsmanship, sensitivity and engaging humor.

David Esbjornson whose impressive directorial bio is as long as your arm, has assembled a remarkable cast, totally in sync with each other.  Malcolm-Jamal Warner, whom you’ll remember as Bill Cosby’s son in The Cosby Show, plays the Poitier role of Doctor John Prentice.  Warner shows off his poise and comic timing alongside Bethany Anne Lind who takes a charming turn as the Drayton’s daughter.

Set Designer Kat Conley stages the play in the round, which affords an intimate connection to the audience who vacillate between uproarious laughter and moments of breath-holding anticipation.  Setting the mood for the 1967 era play Sound Designer Timothy M. Thompson fills the interstices with Peace Movement songs like “If You’re Going to San Francisco”.

Michael Russotto as Monsignor Ryan - Photo by Teresa Wood.

Michael Russotto as Monsignor Ryan – Photo by Teresa Wood.

Much of the snappy repartee comes from Tillie, the Drayton’s tell-it-like-it-is housekeeper, played brilliantly by Lynda Gravatt.  “Civil rights don’t mean you trust everyone!” she wisecracks.   Another scene-stealer is Michael Russotto as Monsignor Ryan, the Irish priest spewing platitudes and comic retorts to Drayton, who he tries to reason with.  Also notable are Prentice’s parents, played pitch perfectly by Eugene Lee and Andrea Frye and Valerie Leonard as Hilary St. George, Christina’s self-righteous gallery assistant.

A strong cast at ease in their well-defined characters soars in this touching and screamingly funny play that has all the elements for success – – humor, sensitivity, a great cast and terrific direction.

Highly recommended.

Through January 5th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

 

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