Review: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”

Mary Beth Fisher, Tim Hopper, Bryce Gangel, Michael Aaron Pogue in a scene from “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., through April 15. – Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through April 15
Tickets: $44-$74
Phone: 773-753-4472

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

When I first heard that Court Theatre was staging “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Todd Kreidler’s contemporary play based on the classic 1967 film about race relations written by William Rose and directed by Stanley Kramer, I wondered why. The movie stars the peerless trio of Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Sidney Poitier–and seemed contrived and a little dated even at the time.

Court’s program notes by artistic director Charles Newell and the playwright provide a clue or two. Apparently, the idea is to look at attitudes towards race in 1967 through the lens of the 21st century in order to “awaken new ideas and understandings.”

A noble goal, for sure. There’s no question that racial prejudice persists today, even if at times it has been more cloaked than in 1967 and, unfortunately, very recently. The script clearly outlines some of the problems, and gives all the characters chances to express their attitudes, typically in long monologues. And Court’s well-acted production puts a modern spin on the proceedings, book-ending them with housekeeper Matilda “Tillie” Binks’ (a terrific Sydney Charles) skepticism and finishing with music that becomes jarring, undercutting the “love conquers all” ending.

But…and this is a big but…transferring “Guess” to the stage highlights just how contrived the plot is, especially without brilliant star power to carry it along. As you may recall, Joanna Drayton (Bryce Gangel) arrives home early from a 10-day Hawaiian vacation, her new fiancé, the renowned Dr. John Prentice (Michael Aaron Pogue in the Poitier role), in tow. and announces to her affluent parents, liberal newspaper publisher Matt Drayton (Tim Hopper in the Tracy role), and gallery owner Christina Drayton (Mary Beth Fisher in the Hepburn part) that he’s flying to New York that evening then on to Geneva, where she plans to join him in a couple of weeks and get married.

Considerably older and a widower, Dr. Prentice is black. Joanna is white, and although her white parents pride themselves on not being racist, when the the issue involves their only child, it’s a different matter. Matt, who is most opposed, argues that the couple won’t make it in the hostile real world, though as his friend and golf buddy Monsignor Ryan (Dan Waller) points out, this masks a deeper prejudice. Christina is worried about the situation but more inclined to factor in her daughter’s happiness and the pair’s love for each other. Tillie is against the match, suspicious that the doctor is trying to rise above his station.

Unbeknownst to Joanna, Dr. Prentice tells the Draytons that the marriage won’t take place without their approval—but that they have to give it that day, the same day they are meeting him for the first time. The urgency intensifies when Joanna decides instead to go with him that very evening to New York and on to Switzerland. Compounding the ridiculous ultimatum, Joanna has secretly invited Dr. Prentice’s parents to dinner as a surprise, and their arrival from Sacramento sparks heated arguments. John Prentice Sr. (Dexter Zollicoffer) objects to the marriage just as strongly, if not more so, than his white counterpart, and his wife Mary (Jacqueline Williams) is as doubtful as Christina.

The challenge for director Marti Lyons and associate director Wardell Julius Clark is to find the balance between comedy and seriousness while offering a new perspective. They try to do this partly with some cinematic references—swelling movie music at the beginning (sound design by Andre Pluess and Christopher M. LaPorte), freeze-frame vignettes in striking lighting (by Lee Fiskness)–and an eye-catching, symbolically almost all-white San Francisco apartment set with black accents (by Scott Davis), but the approach is inconsistent.

The acting ranges from extremely broad to fairly naturalistic. Hillary St. George (Rachel Sledd), the gallery employee fired on the spot by Christina when she expresses her bigoted views, comes across as a cartoon character, as does Zollicoffer’s John Prentice Sr. when he delivers his angry diatribe. Waller’s tipsy Monsignor is a bit of a caricature, too, but a fun one and arguably the most enlightened of the bunch. At the other end of the spectrum are the Drayton parents (Hopper is particularly impassioned) and Dr. Prentice, though Pogue’s portrayal of the latter doesn’t have much charm or charisma, and the chemistry between him and Gangel isn’t quite there. Her Joanna crosses the line between hopelessly naïve and insensitively clueless, making her annoying and unsympathetic as far as I’m concerned.

To be completely honest, Court’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is hindered by the improbable plot and doesn’t improve on the film in any way. The most engaging character is Charles’ spot-on, sarcastic Tillie, which may be what the directors’ intended.