“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Stanley Kramer’s 1967 film, was of its time and about its time. Todd Kreidler’s stage adaptation preserves its essence like a freshly unsealed time capsule. It’s the latest Asolo Rep production. Race, of course, is on the menu.
The play is set in the year of the film. Joanna (Ally Farzetta), a bright-eyed medical intern, brings her fiancé, Dr. John Prentice (A.K. Murtadha), home to her wealthy parents in San Francisco. They don’t know she has a fiancé — and they certainly don’t know he’s black.
Her intended is a pure-hearted, dashing medical-research genius who’s saved thousands of lives around the world in his war against tropical diseases. He also fights crime in his secret identity as — well, no, he doesn’t have super powers. Though I wouldn’t be surprised. Her mother, Christina (Peggy Roeder), is a rich white gallery owner; her father, (Mark Jacoby), is a rich, white, liberal newspaper publisher. Mom comes around and fires her gallery assistant, Hilary (Denise Cormier) when she makes a racist suggestion. Dad, it turns out, has a harder time with liberal principles in his living room than on his editorial pages. (His objection is not to race, but the pain of a mixed-race couple living in a racist society.) The mystery dinner guests turn out to be the doctor’s parents — (Ernest Perry and Tyla Abercrumbie) — who have a harder time with the marriage than the white folks. Everybody comes around eventually, with the possible exception of John’s father. But he at least comes in from the car.
Todd Kreidler’s adaptation of William Rose’s original screenplay takes the pontificating down a notch and gives a new shade to some of the wrong moments in the original film. So, a scene where the doctor seemed to be gratuitously attacking his father now comes off as claiming the right to make his own decisions. But some flaws — and ethnic stereotypes — remain. Matilda, the Drayton’s maid, is welcome comic relief, but she’s a sitcom staple. Sure and begorrah, the same applies to the feisty Irish priest.
Frank Galati directs the material as a love story that happens to have a message. Political subtext aside, this play is a drawing-room comedy at heart, and that’s how he plays it.
The actors click nicely as an ensemble and humanize their sometimes two-dimensional characters. A.K. Murtadha and Jacqueline Williams show true chemistry as the couple in the eye of the hurricane. Jacoby and Roeder and have some very big shoes to fill in the roles Tracy and Hepburn originated; they pull it off with gravitas, depth and humor. As John’s mother, Abercrumbie reveals she has a mind of her own. As John’s domineering father, Perry makes you feel exactly why his mind is set in stone. Cormier’s character is a perfectly sweet person; it blindsides you and stings when you see her racist side. William Dick plays the monsignor without a hint of brogue.
James Schuette’s sumptuous set makes you wish you’d been rich in San Francisco back in 1967.
Despite Kreidler’s makeover, this is a message play. The message, of course, is love. As the title song of the movie told us …
"You’ve got to give a little, take a little, and let your poor heart break a little. That’s the story of, that’s the glory of love."
And that’s what it’s all about.
No searing revelations, no new ground; just a night of warm entertainment and a shamelessly corny assertion that love conquers all. (Sometimes it does. And sometimes the law helps. In the same year this film came out, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision struck down anti-miscegenation laws across the country.)
We’ve moved on, and sometimes moved backwards. Racism is a stubborn, adaptive virus. If you’ll forgive the hackneyed image, the issues in 1967 were far more black and white.
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” stands as a fascinating period piece.