Review: What Is and What Could Be at Court Theatre’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Last year, when it turned 50, the Stanley Kramer film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, marking it for preservation and officially recognizing it as the classic in American cinema that it is. Now, Hyde Park's Court Theatre presents a stage adaptation of the script by William Rose, and it proves as timely and relevant today as it was in 1967. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (here adapted by Todd Kreidler and directed by Marti Lyons) is, at its core, a story of two world views at odds: those who see the world as it is, and those who see it as it could be. Guess Who's Coming To Dinner Image courtesy of Court Theatre In a modern house on a hill in San Francisco, all sharp lines and picture windows, the walls and furniture are all white; even the plants on the terrace and the paintings on the wall have been whitewashed. The thrust stage puts the audience on three sides of the action, and depending on where you sit, you'll see the two-act play (with one intermission) unfold from different perspectives. All of it sets us up for a production where the ideas at hand, the discourse of the characters is paramount. And the characters are these: self-proclaimed progressives Matt and Christina Drayton (Tim Hopper and Mary Beth Fisher), a newspaper man and the owner of an art gallery, surprised by the unannounced arrival of their 23-year-old daughter Joanna (Bryce Gangel). She's just returned from a Hawaiian vacation, and she's brought her very accomplished, very black fiancé, John Prentice (Michael Alan Pogue), with her. Their in-home help, Tillie (Sydney Charles), has an opinion or two about this, as does Monsignor Ryan (Dan Waller), Matt's golfing buddy and spiritual adviser. There's gallery assistant Hillary (Rachel Sledd) who's more trouble than she's worth; and to cap it all off, we meet Dr. Prentice's parents (Dexter Zollicoffer and Jacqueline Williams), who don't realize the circus they've been invited into until it's too late. It'd be a disservice to commit most of this review to the plot of the production; even if you've never seen the film, you know the story. Surprised by Joanna's news, Matt and Christine are forced to face their own prejudices, and under the gun, too. She and Dr. Prentice are leaving that very night for New York, then on to Geneva where they'll be married. But John throws one not-so-small wrench in the plans: having been married once before (and now widowed), he won't go through with the wedding if they can't secure the Draytons’ blessing. Both Rose's original script and Kreidler's adaptation deftly marry the inherent comedy of surprise guests and condensed timelines with the weight of racial politics and family dynamics. Lyons’ direction sees the ensemble work together as if expertly choreographed, moving in and out of scenes in natural, unobtrusive ways. Where a camera could cut away from one scene to the next in a film version, there's no such luxury on stage, and Kreidler's script handles the flow of the action mostly seamlessly. Perhaps it’s the nature of the story, full of introductions and exposition as it is, but the show seemed to start slowly, the initial set-up played for more laughs than one might expect. Sure, it's laughably absurd to our post-Obama sensibilities that Joanna's choice of a mate, whatever his (or her!) background, should be met with such anxiety. But is it supposed to be that funny? Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Image courtesy of Court Theatre The depth of the situation quickly sets in, of course, thanks in no small part to stirring performances. In one particularly moving moment, Hopper is nearly in tears as he navigates his complicated response, driven mostly from a place of parental defensiveness. It's a moment that affects us deeply, as well. And Charles's Tillie is a force of few words, a source of both brutal honesty and warm comfort. By the time Pogue delivers his signature monologue about his state as a man in the world, we're well ensconced in the stakes here, and knowing how it all ends in no way diminishes its impact. Ever the radical optimist, Joanna seems the only one entirely oblivious to what the couple is asking of their parents; but even she breaks under the pressure, challenging her father to put his progressive views into practice. "Not war, but discourse is our true nature," she reminds him. And it couldn't be more true of this thoughtful conversation piece, a story set in 1967 that is just as meaningful in 2018. In a situation that could easily devolve into battles between child and parent, husband and wife, lovers and friends, it's the dialogue that ultimately saves us all. The way it is, of course, isn't how it has to be. Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? is on now through April 15 at Court Theatre (5535 S. Ellis Ave). Ticket range from $44-$74 for performances Wednesday through Sunday, and are available here.
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Lisa Trifone