If the character of John Prentice—a young, handsome, polite, impossibly successful doctor—seems at first glance to be implausibly perfect, it’s necessarily so. Prentice, played ably by Malcolm-Jamal Warner (read our interview with him) in Arena Stage’s current production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, is like the lab experiments he conducts: constructed to be flawless, with the exception of a single variable.
Arena’s new adaptation of Stanley Kramer’s 1967 film about a young, wealthy girl who brings her black fiancé home to meet her West Coast liberal parents could easily feel dated, given the story’s relatively gentle approach to portraying racism. And in many ways it would be gratifying to see a 2013 spin-off, Clybourne Park style, so we can see how far we’ve failed to come. But David Esbjornson’s production, based on a new script by Todd Kreidler, is surprisingly jarring nonetheless, utilizing a powerful cast and some riotously funny humor to convey what we really talk about when we talk about race.
“There’s something you should know,” Joanna Drayton (Bethany Anne Lind) tells her mother, Christina (Tess Malis Kincaid). “I should tell you straight up front. He’s . . . older than me.” (In journalism, this is called burying the lede.) When Warner finally arrives, to applause acknowledging how he’ll always be The Cosby Show’s Theo in a lot of hearts, Kincaid’s shock is so palpable that Prentice advises her in his role as a "medically qualified doctor" to sit down before she faints. It’s horribly funny but is one-upped just a few minutes later when Matt Drayton (Tom Key) comes home, is introduced to the good doctor, and immediately asks John with horror what’s wrong with his daughter.
The comedy of manners that ensues depends heavily on three supporting characters: the Draytons’ maid, Matilda “Tilly” Binks (Lynda Gravatt), who throws more shade John’s way than a retractable patio awning; Monsignor Ryan (Michael Russotto), an exceptionally amiable and tipsy priest; and Hilary St George (Valerie Leonard), an employee of Christina’s whose casual racism is enough to shock Christina out of her temporary fugue state.
Esbjornson has tweaked the timing to perfection, and much of the show’s humor comes from facial expressions and reactions rather than the script (I haven’t seen the film in over a decade, but I don’t recall it being this funny). One complaint, though, is that if ever a show lost something from being performed in-the-round in Arena’s Fichandler Theatre, it’s this one. (There’s nothing more galling than seeing half the audience in stitches from a joke from which you’re left out because all you can see is a character’s back.) In a production that draws so much from Tilly’s raised eyebrow or Monsignor’s mock horror, it’s impossible not to long to be able to see everyone all at the same time.
Amid a company of very able actors, Warner doesn’t disappoint. His presence is forceful on stage, and he’s perfected the half-composed, half-amused face John uses to get himself through tricky situations. He also taps into a kind of anger that feels visceral and a little unsettling given his character’s genial kindliness. In a confrontation with his parents, who arrive at the beginning of the second act and are even more displeased than the Draytons at their son’s love match, John’s rage at both his father and the prejudice his father represents is fearsome. “You still think of yourself as a colored man,” he says icily. “I think of myself as a man.”
Warner also shares excellent chemistry with Lind, who has a slightly less interesting character than the scheming millennial she played so well in Signature Theatre’s Really Really but who manages to make Joanna’s sweetness and naiveté seem realistic. Kincaid is poised and complex as Christina Drayton, with an added storyline about her son giving her some extra depth, while Key is exemplary in the way he delivers the show’s final monologue, a recap of sorts that almost explains his intractability in the first half of the show.
As John’s father, John Prentice Sr., Eugene Lee serves as the show’s steely dose of unwanted realism, telling his son in no uncertain terms that there are cities in America where he and Joanna won’t be able to drink out of the same water fountain, and entire states in which their marriage will be illegal. His wife, Mary (Andrea Frye) initially comes in as a stony-faced battle-ax before a shared loss reminds her that, in the immortal words of REM, everybody hurts. Costume director Joseph P. Salasovich nails the period attire, contrasting the Draytons’ spring-like colors and luxurious fabrics with the Prentices’ dour tones and heavily formal outfits.
Sound director Timothy M. Thompson intersperses the action with snippets of vintage songs, leading in to the show’s first act with Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair).” As an ode to free love and the irrepressible tides of change, it initially feels unsuited to the formality of the Draytons’ home, but by the time the show wraps up, it feels like the lyrics praising “a whole generation with a new explanation” might just be the perfect accompaniment.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is at Arena Stage through January 5. Running time: about two and a half hours, with one intermission. Tickets ($55 and up) are available via Arena Stage’s website.