‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’ by The Huntington Theatre Company

‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’ – Written by William Rose and adapted for
the stage by Todd Kreidler; Directed by David Esbjornson; Scenic Design by Dane
Laffrey; Costume Design by Paul Tazewell; Lighting by Allan Lee Hughes. Presented
by The Huntington Theatre Company at 264 Huntington Ave., Boston through
October 5th.

If you’re holding back from seeing ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’, the
season opening production for The Huntington Theatre Company (based on the 1967
film of the same name) because you’re afraid that it’s a period piece and no
longer relevant , fear not. This outstanding adaptation is loaded with surprises,
and arguably the best production I’ve seen at the Huntington in the last couple
of years. It is a work that combines great comedy with a thought provoking
premise, namely, how well do our ideals match up with our actions?

The first surprise is (sadly) how that premise – a rich white girl brings
home her fiance (a doctor) to meet her liberal parents who are shocked when
they discover he’s African American – still provides people with varying levels
of discomfort. This becomes clear whenever a character – black or white – sees
for the first time that the girl’s betrothed is a brother. As we know from a
significant portion of white America’s reaction to the first black president
being elected, racism is not exactly a thing of the past. But my initial
thought going in was that this premise was going to be a little dated, but I’m
happy to report that it’s not. Although the director keeps the setting in 1967
(as we can tell by the intro and closing music, the use of the word
“colored” and some of the costuming and hairstyles for the women), it
doesn’t always seem to be particularly central to the plot, although remembering
that interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states at the time helps keep
things in perspective.

The second surprise is just how laugh out loud funny this play is. I don’t
recall the movie being a comedy, but there are big laughs throughout, despite the
weighty material. There are plenty of intense scenes as well, which only make
the comic scenes more effective. The aforementioned scenes where each of the
characters discover that Dr. John Prentice is black is a gift that keeps on
giving and many of the reactions – by whites and blacks range from hilarious to
disturbing. While we might expect the white folks to pass judgment, the
reactions of the black characters are even more severe (and funny).

The third and best surprise is the casting of a pair of eighties sitcom
stars Malcolm-Jamal Warner (The Cosby Show) and Julia Duffy (Newhart). While I
thought this may have been a case of stunt casting, it is nothing of the sort.
At the outset I thought Duffy may have been trying to channel the performance
of Katherine Hepburn from the movie, but as the show went on she really owned
the role, infusing it with her impressive comic chops. But Warner was the
evening’s greatest surprise, essentially playing the straight man to those
reacting to his unanticipated blackness. Warner shines in this role,
particularly in some very intense scenes with his father, who vehemently
disagrees with his son’s decision to marry Joanna (the appealing Meredith
Florenza). And his performance is (wisely) not at all informed by Sidney Poitier’s
in the film.

The rest of the cast is terrific too. Local favorite Will Lyman as the
liberal newspaper editor and civil rights champion who is horribly conflicted
by his daughter’s decision is terrific, and Lynda Gravatt as the flippant
housekeeper steals every scene she’s in.
Lonnie Farmer and Adriane Lenox
give nuanced performances as John’s parents, and Patrick Shea (whom many will recolonize from his long-running role in
Shear Madness) as Monsignor Ryan is wonderful as the moral center of the piece
and equally funny as the increasingly drunk priest. This play is as relevant
now as it was 47 years ago, which may not say much for the state of race
relations, but it certainly makes for some damn good theater. For more info, go
to: http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2014-2015/guess-whos-coming-to-dinner/


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