Former ‘Cosby’ star makes fine ‘Dinner’ companion

Adriane Lenox, Lonnie Farmer, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Julia Duffy, Patrick Shea, and Meredith Forlenza in the Huntington Theatre Company production of Todd Kreidler’s compelling family comedy Guess Who's Coming to Dinner directed by David Esbjornson, playing Sept. 5 – Oct. 5, 2014 at the Avenue of the Arts / BU Theatre. Photo: Paul Marotta

Adriane Lenox, Lonnie Farmer, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Julia Duffy, Patrick Shea, and Meredith Forlenza in the Huntington Theatre Company production of Todd Kreidler’s compelling family comedy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner directed by David Esbjornson, playing Sept. 5 – Oct. 5, 2014 at the Avenue of the Arts / BU Theatre. Photo: Paul Marotta

BOSTON — Alas, there was a time when love did not conquer all, even in 1967 San Francisco, the American capital of liberalism and tolerance, where young people dissented and protested to their heart’s content.

But while those arriving in the City by the Bay were wearing flowers in their hair, it was also a time when the racial divide was wide, when seventeen states had yet to recognize interracial marriage.

Julia Duffy and Lynda Gravátt in the Huntington Theatre Company production of Todd Kreidler’s compelling family comedy GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER directed by David Esbjornson, playing Sept. 5 – Oct. 5, 2014 at the Avenue of the Arts / BU Theatre. Photo: Paul Marotta

Julia Duffy and Lynda Gravátt in the Huntington Theatre Company production of Todd Kreidler’s compelling family comedy GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER directed by David Esbjornson, playing Sept. 5 – Oct. 5, 2014 at the Avenue of the Arts / BU Theatre. Photo: Paul Marotta

It is perhaps easy for us to look back almost a half-century and see the characters in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” at the BU Theatre as strangers from a strange land, except there are many of us who lived through that era who now see the landscape through a prism of racial progress that makes many of the attitudes of the time almost laughable.
But those of us with children are left to confront the inevitable question: What if it was our son or daughter coming to us as part of a whirlwind romance, determined to marry almost immediately someone of a different race, a decision that would inevitably dramatically change the lives of all involved — and especially so in 1967.
And what if that child was about to fly off and get married that every same day — how would we react?
That’s the dilemma for liberal newspaper publisher Matt Drayton (Will Lyman), who finds himself fighting for the rights of minorities on the pages of his newspaper, but possibly not practicing what he preaches when it comes to a member of his own family.
This “Dinner” is tasty mainly because of a strong, assured performance by former “Cosby” star Malcolm Jamal-Warner as the accomplished physician Dr. John Prentice, whose easy-going charm makes it believable that he has swept the younger Joanna “Joey” Drayton (Meredith Forlenza) off her feet in a short time.
Joanna is a vivacious, dewy-eyed young woman so in love that she almost seems to gloss over the possible pitfalls of the relationship, perplexed that her parents don’t immediately embrace it.
There are other complications: Dr. Prentice is toting some baggage from the tragic end a previous marriage, as well as the resentment over the fact that his work hasn’t been acknowledged by the mainstream medical community.
And he has not told Joanna that if her parents don’t approve, the marriage will not take place, because their disapproval and the attitude of society as a whole could crush the couple.
Julia Duffy as art gallery owner Christina Drayton spends much time being flummoxed and in a “sitdown” mode at the many revelations, frequently resorting to strong drink.
Todd Kreidler’s adaptation of William Rose’s screenplay from the iconic 1967 film is a carefully and artfully constructed piece, in many ways a well-crafted TV sitcom — and that’s not meant in a negative sense. You can almost sense when there’s a laugh coming up.
He inserts an effective twist to the plot to close the first act and open the second, setting the stage for the fireworks that follow.
Director David Esbjornson undoubtedly benefited from a previous stint at the Huntington directing Lyman in a well-received “All My Sons” and here again coaxes a winning performance from Lyman as a character conflicted by the progressive attitudes he has always preached to his daughter, while also concerned for the possible heartache that might befall her if she’s involved in an interracial marriage.
Lynda Gravatt is a forceful, funny presence as Tildy Banks, the Drayton family servant who helped raise Joey and is skeptical of Dr. Prentice, and whose attitude toward the young “colored” physician — in the vernacular of the day — is at the beginning even more wary than her white employers, reminding us that at the time many families of color also didn‘t approve of interracial marriages.
Patrick Shea’s sense of comic timing is beyond dispute; it’s something I’ve enjoyed since he first played the hairdresser in “Shear Madness,” and here he scores as a good-hearted monsignor who clashes with Matt; it’s the type of role which to him is the theatrical equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.
Set designer Dane Laffrey’s well-appointed California home rotates to allow the action to move easily both inside and outside to the veranda.
The entrance of Dr. Prentice’s parents into the equation in the second act — John Prentice Sr. (Lonnie Farmer) and Mary Prentice (Adriane Lenox) ups the dramatic ante, and when it appears that all stars may be aligned against the couple, Kreidler delivers to Matt a long, summing-up where-are-we-now monologue that’s designed to send everyone out on a hopeful high note. 
This rewarmed “Dinner” is a winning look at a time and a place that seems distant in some way, but very close in others. It doesn’t break any new ground, the but the old ground it covers, it covers very well.
The Huntington Theatre Company production of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” by Todd Kreidler. Based on the screenplay by William Rose. Directed by David Esbjornson. At the BU Theatre on the Avenue of the Arts, Boston, MA through October 5. http://www.huntingtontheatre.org

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