The eternally vexing issue of race in America has been examined and dissected in so many ways by now that it’s hard to say something new. So it’s all the more surprising that a playwright should have managed to generate a fresh take on this subject out of dated material — the 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
Todd Kreidler re-examined the screenplay by William Rose and transformed it into a sturdy theatrical vehicle, as sobering as it is funny. And Arena Stage has given Kreidler’s play a sterling production that ought to keep the box office humming right through the holidays.
For its time, the Stanley Kramer movie was a bold statement about attitudes held by whites and blacks, attitudes severely challenged by the unexpected — in this case, the prospect of an interracial marriage. That wasn’t even legal in all 50 states until the Supreme Court delivered its landmark decision on the matter the same year the film came out.
Viewed today, the cinematic “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” can come off as a bit glib and glossy, not to mention manipulative and preachy. But with Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier heading the cast, the acting is terrific, of course. That largely explains why it’s still very watchable, if maybe not quite a timeless masterpiece.
Kreidler has fashioned a work that is somehow both lighter and heavier than the original. The humor is abundant, largely avoiding the sitcom level, while the subject gains a few extra layers of tension.
There are still lines that sound contrived, plot maneuvers that are overly obvious, but the net result is remarkably natural and nuanced. And although the setting remains the 1960s, you are reminded throughout of how little has really changed since then.
When John Prentice, the black doctor who falls in love with the daughter of a white San Francisco couple, says his future wife envisions their biracial children growing up to be president, you can smile at the relevance. But when a white character recalls how a cousin gave up a black boyfriend and found “a real American man,” you wince from the all-too-contemporary sting.
The play, directed by David Esbjornson, moves fluently on Kat Conley’s attractive, subdued set (Paul Tazewell’s elegant costumes likewise avoid vibrant ’60s hues in favor of muted tones). Although the in-the-round configuration means that some things are not visible to all audience members at all times, little is lost.
It’s hard to stifle memories of Hepburn and Tracy in the roles of Christina and Matt Drayton, the white couple with a nice long track record of liberal thinking. But Tess Malis Kincaid and Tom Key tackle those assignments admirably.
Kincaid is especially telling as Christina, an art dealer with a hard shell, partly the result of her son’s death years earlier. Even the severe hold of her hair spray suggests how determined this woman is to maintain defenses.
But Kincaid also subtly lets you see how much Christina is affected by each succeeding development in a long day of surprises — the unexpected return of her daughter Joanna with the even more unexpected Dr. Prentice; the realization that the two are in love; the news that a marriage is already planned; the arrival of John’s equally stunned parents.
Matt, a newspaper publisher, has the veneer of the ideal, colorblind citizen. But even though he keeps insisting that he is only thinking of the troubles Joanna and John will face in an un-welcoming world, Matt is obviously battling something inside himself, too. That only makes him angrier, more un-tethered.
Key can seem a little forced at times, but his performance reaches an impressive height in the tense Act 2. Bethany Anne Lind, as Joanna, is least persuasive delivering message-drenched lines but otherwise is a winning presence.
Malcolm-Jamal Warner (best known as Theo Huxtable on “The Cosby Show”) does potent work as John, revealing the character’s mix of confidence, wariness and fear. Eugene Lee and Andrea Frye are superb as the senior Prentices.
Hilary, the bubbly racist who works for Christina, is a broadly written part, but Valerie Leonard adds a lot of nuance and flair to it. And Michael Russotto is a hoot as the forward-thinking, cocktail-loving Monsignor Ryan.
Nearly walking off with the whole production is Lynda Gravatt as the Draytons’ maid, Matilda, who takes a dim view of developments and lets everyone know it, often to hilarious effect. But when Matilda finally changes her tune, at the sound of a childhood song sung by Dr. Prentice, Gravatt makes the moment wonderfully simple, real and touching (I confess that’s when I needed a tissue).
Early in the play, Joanna tells John that her parents love to be surprised. “Surprises make them listen,” she says. Not this time. When race is involved, it’s extra-hard for people to listen to each other, let alone to their hearts. “Guess Who’s Coming Dinner” reminds us just how far away we still are from a post-racial feast.