Theater Review: GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica)

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by Tony Frankel on June 6, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles

GUESS WHAT PLAY WORKS

Based on the screenplay of the same name, writer Todd Kreidler has updated for the stage Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Stanley Kramer’s smash-hit 1967 movie by William Rose, writer of the classic Ealing black comedy The Ladykillers (1955) and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1966). A most satisfactory production opened at Ruskin Group Theatre last weekend containing much of what made the film special, along with new and retooled dialogue to round out characters; the play examines its subject matter with perception, depth, insight, humor and feeling. As such, this in no way feels like a period piece, but ever-relevant as we sadly live with the internet helping to fan the flames of bitter bigotry.

Vincent Washington II, Mary Pumper, and Paul Denk

The final film that paired Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy has always been indelible for many reasons. One is the subject — a young woman stuns her upper-middle-class, liberal white parents when she returns to San Francisco with a Black fiancé (played by Sidney Poitier in the film). The other is the snapshot in time. The picture opened and took place when “Flower Power” occurred at a Human Be-in where Timothy Leary proclaimed “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out.”; The Beatles released “Strawberry Fields” (the name of a children’s home run by the Salvation Army); and the Viet Nam War was on when President Johnson announced his plan to establish a draft lottery, thereby putting a nail in the coffin of his presidency. Also, on June 12, 1967, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court found that Virginia’s interracial marriage law violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. But striking down anti-miscegenation laws didn’t mean — and still do not mean — that a lot of folks approve of that right.

Mary Pumper, Lee Garlington, and Vincent Washington II

Astoundingly well-cast by Paul Ruddy, director Lita Gaithers Owens and her set designer John Iacovelli magically turn this very small playing area into a privileged family’s hilltop home, with the exception that close inspection reveals budget constraints, although Michael Mullen‘s costumes fit right into the period. Remember, the ghastly union Equity, ignoring the limited resources of small theater in L.A., has ensured all actors must be paid more since the discontinuation of Equity Waiver contracts, so I kindly ask you to use a suspension of disbelief when it comes to production values. Personally, I would much much rather have a large cast on stage than real Waterford crystal. A bit rough around the edges opening night, I’m positive actors of such a high caliber will settle in by this upcoming weekend.

Mouchette van Helsdingen and Vickilyn Reynolds

Playwright Mr. Kreidler does not change the story, and doesn’t need to. It remains political enough just with its subject matter. But he fleshes the screenplay out by adding more backstory for some characters — the engaged daughter is more political here than in the film — and a tagged-on ending that adds a perfect comedic clincher to wrap up the lively script. As a result, he took a film which feels a bit outdated, and turned it into an old-fashioned full-length melodrama worthy of great Drawing Room plays in which upper-class morality collides with new ideas. The melodramatic format allows the characters to work through their difficulties with resolute endurance and steadfast bravery.

Most important is that the play has some meaty comments on race and the generation gap but it’s not an in-your-face polemic, which neverendingly seems to be the modus operandi of so many burgeoning playwrights on the subject of race in America.

Vickilyn Reynolds, Lee Garlington, Brad Greenquist, Renn Woods and Paul Denk

The virtuous character here is Doctor John Prentice (gorgeous, resolute, no-nonsense Vincent Washington II, in whose dimples you can park a truck), a Black medical research doctor who has fallen in reciprocated love with Joanna Drayton (beautiful, brave, vulnerable Mary Pumper), a white girl who recently interned for a medical research hospital in Hawaii. “Joey,” as she is known by her parents, surprises her folks with a visit, but is unprepared for their initial hesitation and shock. Nailing the famous monologue weighing an ultimate decision regarding a wedding, the astoundingly centered Brad Greenquist plays the wealthy, pseudo-liberal Matt Drayton, the publisher of The Guardian. His wife Christina, a gallerist, is made no-nonsense, stately, and acceptingly emotional by Lee Garlington.

Dan Martin, Renn Woods and Lee Garlington

John’s Black parents, the couple that famously shows up for dinner from Sacramento, are perfectly embodied by Renn Woods and Dan Martin, whose volatility is almost painful to watch as he wears a Jim Crow past on his sleeve. Woods plays the mom with such delicious world-weariness and wariness that she accidentally stumbled into some furniture — twice! This misstep — and Woods’ improvised reaction of fake laughter — fit perfectly into what can be a very funny play. It was also one of the most satisfying moments in live theater, causing an eruption of applause for Woods’ quick thinking (I say, “keep it!”).

Brad Greenquist and Vincent Washington II

Rounding out the characters, the Black domestic Matilda (Vickilyn Reynolds) suspects John’s polished demeanor; the bigoted Associate Director of the Drayton Gallery Hilary St. George (Mouchette van Helsdingen) thinks the marriage ridiculous; while Monsignor Ryan (Paul Denk), Matt’s golf buddy, approves wholeheartedly.

Patrons seeking an amusing evening garnished with stimulating repartee on an important subject will be just fine. Now, that’s worth about 30 bucks for a ticket, right?

photos by Amelia Mulkey

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Ruskin Group Theatre
John Ruskin and Michael R. Myers, producers
3000 Airport Ave in Santa Monica
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2 (dark June 17 & 18)
ends on July 17, 2022
for tickets ($35 GA; $30 Seniors/Students/Guild), call 310.397.3244 or visit Ruskin

{ 1 comment }

Michael Ronald Anello June 6, 2022 at 9:20 pm

Any show with Renn Woods in it has been well cast. Miss Woods is worth the price of admission by herself. Well done casting director.

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