Who could forget Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Hepburn’s niece (I could forget her) in the landmark 1967 film about a rich white girl bringing her black upwardly mobile fiance home to meet her parents in the provocatively titled GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? I remember being completely intrigued– couldn’t wait to see what those lily white liberals would do when confronted with the tall, good looking, brilliant, successful doctor who in every way epitomized their dreams for their daughter– except his color. The film was LOADED in 1967– not so much in 2014. But Todd Kreidler’s smart stage adaptation and the excellent cast directed by David Esbjornson in the Huntington Theatre Company’s season opener starring “The Cosby Show”‘s Malcolm-Jamal Warner, sure does a great job of plumbing the prejudices still simmering beneath the surface of mainstream America today.
The set and lighting (Dane Laffrey & Allen Lee Hughes) is gorgeous– sleek 60’s modern, light and bright. Will Lyman and Julia Duffy are the wealthy Draytons living a picture perfect life. Duffy is cute-pretty like a latter day Connie Stevens–folks of a certain vintage will know exactly who I’m talking about. The Draytons have a sassy black maid played with fire and insight by Lynda Gravatt. She gets the last word, literally, and deserves it. Meredith Forlenza plays the idealistic daughter Joanna who breathlessly rushes in and foists her whole new life plan on her unsuspecting parents, giving them less than 24 hours to react. Enter Malcolm-Jamal Warner carrying luggage. The image is ironic; no, he’s not a limo driver, doorman, or bellhop; he’s Dr. John Prentice and he’s about to whisk their daughter off to Europe and marry her.
The cast takes awhile to settle in– they’re all a tad stiff at first, as was my frame of reference which I peeled back to 1967, trying to remember how shocking this news would have been then. But settle in, we all did– and ACT II explodes with fresh force. Malcom Jamal-Warner’s performance especially loosens up after he hears his own parents are about to arrive for dinner — before he’s had a chance to tell them his soon to be wife is white. His reaction– the terror of a misbehaving adolescent– is hilarious, and eventually gives way to a fusillade of righteous adult anger and self-affirmation when confronted by his father. Lonnie Farmer as John Prentice, Sr. matches Warner’s heat, while Adriane Lenox is tender and strong as Mrs. Prentice. Patrick Shea as the tippling Irish Catholic Monsignor is pretty funny throughout.
We’ve come a long way, but not so far that the undercurrents of racial unease, and for that matter– self-determination, identity, hypocrisy, and the role of a parent in a grown offspring’s life– are all settled. GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER metaphorically opens up so many more issues than mere race. The work is a touchstone for how far we’ve come, and how far we still need to go in so many ways. Through October 5, Huntington Theatre Company. Don’t guess– go see it.