Upon walking into Arena Stage's current stage adaptation of the Stanley Kramer classic film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, it's hard not to have several preconceptions. First of all, after having experienced the movie so many times, seeing anyone inhabit the roles so expertly created by Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy seems oddly wrong.
Second, playing John Prentice, the handsome, successful African-American doctor that Poitier first brought to life is Malcolm-Jamar Warner, best known as playing the only son on the classic Cosby Show for eight years in the '80s. Even though the actor has been pretty much a regular on television screens over the two decades since, it's always hard to think of him as anything but the wisecracking, Gordon Gartrelle-wearing Theo.
It took only minutes for Warner to make us forget about the antics of Theo and see before us a very gifted and affable young man. Warner brings all the charm and charisma necessary for John to win over what will be the toughest test of his life, and he does so with humor, passion, and a true sense of right and wrong.
As the innocent and sweet Joanna, Bethany Anne Lind is spot-on as the loving daughter who surprises her wealthy, liberal parents with news that will forever change their lives. Deep down, she understands the Draytons' concerns, but she uses her tight grip on her parents' love to persuade them to see an outside-the-box life for her. When push comes to shove, Lind makes Joanna stronger than she initially appears and thanks to incredible chemistry between Warner and Lind, it's a love everyone will be rooting for.
Of course it's the Draytons, Tom Key as Matt and Tess Malis Kincaid as Christina, who need to balance the racism line to make the play work, and the two veteran actors do so with aplomb. Their arguments and concerns are warranted, yet they never fall into villainous status. Scenes with the four main characters are filled with exactly what you would expect in a situation at this time.
Rather than skip ahead to modern times, the reworked script by Todd Kreidler keeps the dinner action smack dab in the middle of the '60s, only the doctor is no longer the perfect specimen he needed to be back when the film premiered. The play now delves deeper than just a story about a white girl who brings home a black finance, exploring more the emotional response each character has to the future union of the couple. Race is no longer the only issue.
Like the movie, the play finds a lot of humor in the situation, whether it be Joanna telling her mother a hidden secret about her new love ("he's older than me"), or the good doctor advising his future mother-in-law to have a seat before she passes out from shock.
A trio of supporting actors do wonders in relieving the tensions of the family and making the script livelier than its film counterpart. There's Michael Russotto as the hilarious Monsignor Ryan, a man with a big heart who never met a drink he didn't like; Lynda Gravatt as the Draytons' African-American maid Tilly, whose raised eyebrows and overinflated gestures say more than Joanna's parents' words; and Valerie Leonard as Hillary St. George, a vicious gallery worker who has her own thoughts on the new love.
One problem with the production is that it's in Arena's Fichandler Theatre, meaning it's in the round. As a result, so many of the gestures and expressions are lost at times and people are left wondering what it is they missed.
Not everything can be glossed over, however, and it's up to John's parents, played by Eugene Lee and Andrea Frye, to add a dose of realism to the young couple's relationship, impressing the fact that the marriage will be illegal in some states and that their life won't be easy. A little more of their wisdom may have been a good thing for the script.
Director David Esbjornson makes this a very fun production thanks to a fast pace, his talented cast's mannerisms, and a beautifully designed set by Kat Conley. He clearly made the right choice in casting Warner in the lead and gives every reason to believe that Guess Who's Coming to Dinner would be a success if it made its way to Broadway.
As Bill Cosby's Cliff would say to his son, "Theo, I'm proud of you."
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