Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner at Guthrie Theater, Todd Kreidler’s adaptation of William Rose’s screenplay showcases acting highlights in an otherwise pedestrian production of a story that never had a great deal going for it.
Regina Marie Williams (Dinah Was/Penumbra), (Ruined/Mixed Blood) is priceless as the adorably feisty Tillie, who consistently oversteps her bounds. As a Guthrie veteran Peter Thomson (To Kill A Mocking Bird, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), he effortlessly enlivens the blithely irreverent Monsignor Ryan.
Likewise, Oregon Shakespeare Festival mainstay Derrick Lee Weeden is a find in his Guthrie debut, portraying John Prentice, Sr., the loving dad heartbroken and infuriated by his headstrong son.
It is always a joy to watch the gifted Greta Oglesby (Caroline, or Change/Guthrie), (The Wiz/Penumbra-Children’s Theatre Company) work, though she is yet again typecast in a matronly role, playing handwringing Mary Prentice worried about her boy’s chances of finding happiness.
Broadway’s David Manis and Twin Cities’ legend Sally Wingert are serviceable as distraught Matt and Christina Drayton, coming to grips with their daughter deciding her future with a bold life-changing choice. Similarly, Michelle Duffy (Leap of Faith/Broadway), (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof/Milwaukee Rep) hits her marks as Hillary the Drayton’s closeted bigot of a nosy neighbor.
The company’s Achilles’ heel is the ineffectual pairing of JaBen Early (The Great Society, All The Way/Arena Stage) and Maeve Coleen Moynihan (Little House on the Prairie, The Master Butcher’s Singing Club/Guthrie), leading this otherwise quite capable cast, playing central characters John Prentice and Joanna Drayton.
The characters’ imminent marriage has stood about everyone’s world in its ear. Timothy Bond’s directing is, in a word, unremarkable, managing to hold an even pace.
In 1967, the shock value of a Black man marrying a White woman on the big screen characterized it as a cutting drama, despite such stronger stories as One Potato, Two Potato and Patch of Blue being around, but those didn’t boast the star power of Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Kathrine Hepburn.
Kreidler’s period stage piece treatment comes off as a tongue-in-cheek comedy for most of the first act. Laced with throwaway lines, the audience, in on a hip gag, continually chuckled at ’60s sensibilities in what amounts to self-congratulations for being greatly more socially evolved and enlightened.
The second act isn’t any better — it simply stops playing for shtick and giggles and resorts to a tedious, quickly tiresome device: Whenever someone has anything significant to say, pretty much every time you turn around, it’s done with a speech cum social analysis. This robs the script of the compelling immediacy that stopped the film on a dime, as Roy Glenn in the role of the dad, and Sidney Poitier as the son squared off in a fiery confrontation at the virtual crossroad of racial progress.
Here, Weeden, whose rumbling, depthless timbre powerfully echoes that of Glenn, basically blows the whining Early off the stage. The purported climax, complete with a revolving dinner table that slowly spins to the tune of Grady Tate’s “What A Wonderful World,” ends this would-be poignant saga on a nauseating note of politically correct schmaltz.
Put it all together with the bland-beyond-belief Early and impossibly perky Moynihan possessing all the sexual chemistry of cold boiled eggs and well, if you miss one show this season, make sure it is Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.