Arts Theatre — 20 December 2013
A feast for the eyes and mind

By Jordan Wright (Photo/Teresa Wood)

It’s as rare as hen’s teeth for an iconic movie to be adapted for the stage, especially one that debuted 46 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,” playwright Todd Kreidler has done the unusual by taking a movie known for its big-name stars and Oscar-winning screenplay and creating a comic drama that’s certain to become an American classic.

The question on everybody’s mind, though: Is it still relevant today?

You may remember the original, a classic starring Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier, in which a sophisticated couple’s 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 beforehand.

But the liberal-minded Christina (Tess Malis Kincaid) and Matt Drayton (Tom Key) — she a gallery owner, he a newspaperman — struggle to accept their child’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 Supreme Court.

In contemporary America, where we have a biracial president and a recently elected New York City mayor who’s in an interracial marriage, 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 black parents. Whatever the conflicts, real or imagined, the play offers a challenging and continuing dialogue on the subject from both sides. In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” the issue is handled with great craftsmanship, sensitivity and engaging humor.

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

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.”

Much of the snappy repartee comes from Tillie, the tell-it-like-it-is housekeeper for the Draytons, 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 who spews platitudes and comic retorts. Also notable are John 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 and terrific direction.

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” runs through January 5 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, D.C. For tickets and information, call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.

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