When I say that the new stage version of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is like a Tyler Perry comedy, only better, I do not mean to cast aspersions on the entertainment empire Perry’s built on obvious laughs. Nor do I intend to put into a box Arena Stage’s surprisingly well-handled production, distinguished by a fine writing job, masterly direction and an excellent cast led by all-grown-up “Cosby” alumnus Malcolm-Jamal Warner.
It’s just that it’s a special challenge, finding the right context to describe the transformation that playwright Todd Kreidler and director David Esbjornson have accomplished here, turning a sanctimonious and wooden 1967 film into something with more social texture than could reasonably have been expected. What I’d anticipated as a thin situation comedy or perhaps a soggy melodrama turns out to be a tender stage comedy of manners, redolent of America’s conscience-testing turmoil over race.
Mind you, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” doesn’t measure up to such richer explorations of race onstage as “A Raisin in the Sun” or its Pulitzer-winning descendant, “Clybourne Park” (although “Guess’s” portrait of the “enlightened” white world’s cluelessness is an echo of “Clybourne’s,” and vice versa). The pieties trotted out in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” are worn too transparently for this earnest and reductive work to be taken as anything close to a major contribution.
Still, what’s achieved on the Fichandler Stage is a wholesale reinvention of the movie, one that repositions the story as a sharply observed human comedy, with several moving twists. While retaining the best lines from William Rose’s original screenplay, Kreidler adds new elements to the plot and depth to the characters, in particular to the play’s women and African Americans. It runs long — it’s a full half-hour longer than the film, in fact — but it’s also been stripped of some of the hand-wringing platitudes that freighted Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s performances as California liberals struck dumb by their daughter’s having brought home Sidney Poitier.
It would be instructive for playgoers to rent the movie first and get a better feel for how Kreidler — who spent several years as the late August Wilson’s literary aide — has leavened the material’s solemnity. The stage version is set, as the movie was, on the day in 1967 when white med student Joanna Drayton (Bethany Anne Lind) springs on her wealthy parents, Matt and Christina (Tom Key and Tess Malis Kincaid), the fact of her whirlwind engagement and upcoming marriage to black doctor John Prentice (Warner). The news is devastating, not only to the progressive Draytons (he’s a newspaper editor and she owns an art gallery) but also to the play’s other black characters: Matilda, the family’s longtime housekeeper (portrayed with a steely charisma by Lynda Gravátt) and the evening’s other surprise guests, the doctor’s parents, John Sr. and Mary (Eugene Lee and Andrea Frye).
The young couple’s revelation provides a framework for a funnier story onstage in 2013 than on celluloid in 1967. In the laughs that are triggered in the Fich, you get a sense that although meeting the parents is eternally a highly charged encounter, skin color is not quite the springboard to apoplexy in many homes that it was 46 years ago. As orchestrated terrifically by Esbjornson, the various looks of shock, discomfort and disdain on the faces of Kincaid, Key and Gravátt give pleasure to a contemporary audience, which understands better than its ’67 counterpart that these hyperbolic reactions are only going to be temporary.
Kreidler has re-sculpted the plot, so that the arrival of the elder Prentices at the Draytons’ doorstep is the hinge on which Act 2 swings open. (Enjoyably, too, the sound of a doorbell becomes an anxiety trigger.) He also supplies strong comic underpinnings for two ancillary (if superficial) characters, and both are beautifully played: a priest with a big heart (Michael Russotto) and a gallery employee with a vicious streak (Valerie Leonard). More centrally, he’s given new heft to the black parents, especially to Mrs. Prentice. A rather milquetoast presence in the film, she’s accorded in Frye’s splendid embodiment more strength of will and more impact on the play’s outcome. And in adding a new, tragic element to the Draytons’ backstory, Kreidler gives Mrs. Prentice and Mrs. Drayton poignant turf on which they can come together.
Set designer Kat Conley’s well-furnished layout of the Draytons’ San Francisco manse is serviceable in the challenging in-the-round environment; the design star is costumer Paul Tazewell, who dresses pert Joanna in off-the-shoulder bows and fashionable Christina in luxe, flowing pants.
True to the mandates of this period comedy, the couple at the eye of the storm is too good to be completely believable. Joanna is improbably idealistic (although less of a starry-eyed naif than in director Stanley Kramer’s film) and John — “one of the most important doctors in the country” — is so perfect that his only perceptible flaw is that he’s too decent: He won’t marry Joanna unless her parents consent, because it would cause her too much pain down the line. How much more considerate could a suitor be?
But Lind and Warner manage to make the alliance work, because they’re both so darn appealing. Lind, a sterling player in last year’s “Really Really” at Signature Theatre, gives Joanna a persuasive backbone. Warner, meanwhile, has matured into a solid leading man, genial and at ease in the guise of an unassailable catch. Even when a play wears its values as visibly as does “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” it’s a blessing to have heroic love birds you can root for.
By Todd Kreidler, based on the screenplay by William Rose. Directed by David Esbjornson. Set, Kat Conley; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Allen Lee Hughes; sound, Timothy M. Thompson; wigs, Anne Nesmith. About 2 hours 35 minutes. Tickets, $40-$90. Through Jan. 5 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SE. Visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.