Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

The Huntington Theatre Company presents an adaptation of this 1967 film at the BU Theatre.

Meredith Forlenza and Malcolm-Jamal Warner in Todd Kreidler's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, directed by David Esbjornson, at Huntington Theatre Company.
Meredith Forlenza and Malcolm-Jamal Warner in Todd Kreidler’s Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, directed by David Esbjornson, at Huntington Theatre Company.
(courtesy of the production)

In case you’ve forgotten, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was a 1967 film that starred Sidney Poitier as the brilliant, world-class doctor who falls in love with a dithery debutante from a white, wealthy, liberal-minded family. He is brought home as a surprise to her mom and dad. Given that Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy played the parents, the film attracted much attention, even though the notion of white liberals hiding bigotry in their hearts was a difficult one at the time, not to mention the concept of a mixed-race couple. But things are different today. Or are they?

Director David Esbjornson’s period-specific production of playwright Todd Kreidler’s adaptation at the Huntington Theatre Company is filled with laughs, despite the seriousness of the subject and clichés that revolve around the love match of Dr. John Prentice (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) and Joanna Drayton (Meredith Forlenza). Their young love fantasy is mirrored by the relationship between Joanna’s parents, Christina Drayton (Julia Duffy) and Matt Drayton (Will Lyman). However, neither couple has much chemistry between them, despite the onstage, hands-on smooching between Warner and Forlenza.

The second act begins when Dr. Prentice’s parents, who will register as much opposition to the match as the senior Draytons, arrive for the dinner party without knowing the skin color of the family they are about to meet. The fireworks are predictable but eventually smoothed over, chiefly by the mothers. (A fiery Lonnie Farmer plays John Prentice Sr., and Adriane Lenox plays his wife.) Between the blathering that resolves the "problem" as it is called, and the sentimentality reigning over the young love affair, the play ends in a haze of good feeling. Lynda Gravatt as the Drayton’s black maid, dressed in domestic uniform, adds to the piece a welcome, acerbic tone. Patrick Shea is the lively and outspoken Monsignor Ryan, a family friend and saver of souls while Wendy Rich Stetson offers his counterpoint in the role of the bigoted Hilary St. George.

Kreidler’s slight adaptation of William Rose’s film script was, perhaps, born to remind us of how far we’ve come since then, but also how far we still have to go when it comes to race relations across our country. Unfortunately, these are not necessarily the best reasons for undertaking this production, whose uneven balance of seriousness and character clichés are especially challenging to focus on.

Returning to the film after watching the performance at the Huntington offered few clues to its attraction. Other than the joys of three big-time Hollywood actors in the leading roles, the politics on-screen offer no more entertainment or enlightenment than the contents of Kreidler’s play. So how far have we really come? In terms of both on stage and in the general landscape of America, not far enough.

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