Theater Review: GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? (Theatre 40)

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by Tony Frankel on January 20, 2023

in Theater-Los Angeles


A hit at their home theater on the Beverly Hills High School campus, Theatre 40’s production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? has been remounted at the gorgeous Greystone Mansion on a Beverly Hills bluff overlooking L.A., a choice setting for the Bay Area hilltop home of a wealthy publisher and his gallerist wife. Stanley Kramer’s smash-hit 1967 movie, and the final film that paired Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, has been updated for the stage by Todd Kreidler.

Larry Eisenberg, Diana Angelina

Along with new and retooled dialogue to round out characters, the play examines its subject matter with perception, depth, insight, humor and feeling, especially given Director Cate Caplin‘s sensitive staging. 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). It remains 1967 in the play, yet 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. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Refreshingly, the play has some meaty comments on race and the generation gap but it’s not an in-your-face polemic, which never-endingly seems to be the modus operandi of so many burgeoning playwrights on the subject of race in America.

Marc Antonio Pritchett, Patty Lewis, Abigail Stewart, Larry Eisenberg

The virtuous character here is Doctor John Prentice (resolute Marc Antonio Pritchett), a Black medical research doctor who has fallen in reciprocated love with Joanna Drayton (beautiful, brave, vulnerable Abigail Stewart), 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 Larry Eisenberg plays the wealthy, pseudo-liberal Matt Drayton, the publisher of The Guardian. His wife Christina, a gallerist, is made no-nonsense and stately by Diana Angelina.

David Hunt Stafford, Crystal Jackson, Marc Antonio Pritchett, Patty Lewis,
Abigail Stewart, Fred Dawson, Diana Angelina, Larry Eisenberg

John’s parents, the couple that famously shows up for dinner from Sacramento, are perfectly embodied by Patricia A. Lewis and Frederick Dawson, whose volatility is almost painful to watch as he wears a Jim Crow past on his sleeve. Lewis is sensational the mom; with an air of love and graciousness, she never overplays her hand.

Jenn Robbins, Diana Angelina

Rounding out the characters, the Black domestic Matilda (Crystal Yvonne Jackson) suspects John’s polished demeanor; the bigoted Associate Director of the Drayton Gallery Hilary St. George (Jenn Robbins) thinks the marriage ridiculous; while Monsignor Ryan (David Hunt Stafford, getting some well-earned laughs), Matt’s golf buddy, approves wholeheartedly.

Abigail Stewart, David Hunt Stafford

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. It’s a tribute to this lovely production that I now hope to see this terrific play on Broadway.

Marc Antonio Pritchett, Fred Dawson

photos by Damien Tejeda-Benitez

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
Theatre 40
Greystone Mansion, 905 Loma Vista Dr, in Beverly Hills
ends on January 22, 2023
for tickets, visit Theatre 40

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