note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
I’ve said it many times. Regardless of how exciting a play is, such as Huntington Theatre Company’s current, revised production of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” or how extraordinary the cast is, if theatergoers are grumbling they can’t hear or understand the actors, the theater company’s exemplary efforts are compromised.
That was the case, again, last Wednesday night. Seated in a rear row of the theater, I heard a growling rumble of complaints from frustrated theatergoers, who missed key lines throughout the two-hour play.“What’d he say?” “I can’t hear!” “The sound is terrible.” “Why don’t the actors project!” Good question(s).
Dane Laffrey’s handsome, rotating, airy set of Christina and Matt Drayton’s spacious San Francisco home in 1967 should be ideal, but when the actors are situated in the rear of the stage, oftentimes, their voices are muffled. Luckily, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, (who gives a superlative performance as Dr John Prentice), along with Boston’s beloved, versatile star, Will Lyman, portraying liberal newspaper publisher Matt Drayton; Patrick Shea as affable, authentic liberal Monsignor Ryan; and Meredith Forlenza portraying Drayton’s college-age daughter, Joanna, project well. (You probably remember Warner as Bill Cosby’s teen-age son, Theo Huxtable, on Cosby’s TV family sit-com, a role Warner played for eight years).
Overall, this cast, directed by accomplished David Esbjornson, is entertaining, including Tony Award winner Adriane Lenox (John’s mother, Mary Prentice); Julia Duffy (Joanna’s mom, Christina Drayton); and Lynda Gravatt, portraying the Draytons‘ sharp-tongued maid, Matilda Binks. Wendy Rich Stetson is believably irritating as Christina’s superficial art gallery employee, Hilary St. George, and Lonnie Farmer is effective as John’s acerbic father, John Prentice Sr.
Although Christina and Matt Drayton raised their only daughter to respect everybody, regardless of race, creed, religion, or color, they are stunned into silence - shocked - when Joanna surprises them with her fiance, world renowned medical researcher Dr. John Prentice, who is African-American. Theatergoers don’t have to hear Matt and Christina’s responses. The look on their faces and their body language, are graphically tell-tale.
In her upbeat portrayal of Joanna, Forlenza is a bright light - a mirror of how humanity should be, not what it portends. Her affectionate scenes with Warner are warmly realistic. She loves him, adores him, admires him, and he loves her. She’s idealistic, convinced that she and John can handle all adversity. But their dads disagree, for reasons of their own.
While the atmosphere at the Drayton household is heavy with tension, Shea cuts through it with his delightful portrayal of the Draytons’ longtime friend, clergyman, and authentic liberal, Monsignor Shea. His quips and comedic behavior, along with Lynda Gravatt’s sarcastic, suspicious attitude towards Dr. Prentice and the Draytons, inject levity to the situation.
Huntington’s production of Todd Kreidler’s updated stage adaptation of playwright William Rose’s award-winning, 1967 movie that starred silver screen icons Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and Sidney Poitier, is laudable. However, a few naysayers think it’s dated. I disagree. Given recent headlines about police and citizen violence against African-Americans today, I think it’s more poignant than ever.
Set in 1967 in liberal San Francisco, the play takes a strident view of racism then, of NIMBY liberals screaming and advocating for racial equality while masking their own underlying bigotry. Most importantly, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” forces us all to face our own inner selves - and we may not like what we see.
BOX INFO; Two-act, two-hour play, appearing through Oct. 5 at BU Theatre, Avenue of the Arts, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Performances: Tuesday-Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, 8 p.m.; select Sundays at 7 p.m. matinees, select Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays, at 2 p.m. Schedule varies. Single tickets start at $25; Flex Passes, senior, subscriber, BU community, student, military, and 35 below discounts also available. Check for associated events. Call 617-266-0800 or visit the Box Office or online at huntingtontheatre.org