When “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was released in 1967, it was a groundbreaking movie. A progressive-minded middle-aged couple, played by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, learn of the planned interracial marriage of their daughter. Do they embrace it?
The movie remains watchable and entertaining, if a little old-fashioned. There’s something about it that feels contrived and dated. The daughter’s fiancé, played by Sidney Poitier, is such a paragon of perfection that he ends up seeming less like a human being than a dramatic device. And seeing Katherine Hepburn uncomfortable with the idea of her daughter sleeping with a black man is neither funny nor dramatic. It’s dark Edward Albee territory more than heartwarmingly comedic Neil Simon, and the script treats it as the latter.
Almost all these problems translate to the stage in the True Colors Theatre production of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” playing through July 29 at the Rialto Center for the Arts and directed by Kenny Leon.
Tory Kittles does an excellent job as the dignified, enamored Dr. John Prentice — a scene in which the young couple plays hide and seek is especially charming — but for much of the show he remains a cypher. The part was originally structured to debunk stereotypes, and some of this is glaringly obvious. It was a worthy goal in 1967, but it makes for less than enthralling theater in 2012.
The situation — a daughter has, without a single word of preparation, brought home a man who is unquestionably perfect in every possible way except that he’s of a different race and the parents have a few hours to make up their minds how they feel about it — is so contrived that the characters themselves can end up feeling like contrivances rather than people, which is disastrous. The interesting, humanizing speeches come mostly in the second act, and by then that’s what they feel like: interesting, humanizing speeches in the second act.
Andrea Frye does a nice job as Tilly, the Draytons’ black maid. She provides one of the few surprising reactions to the situation: she’s the most visibly riled, resistant to and openly suspicious of John. We’re curious to find out what’s at the bottom of this, and it’s a disappointment to learn that it’s a servant’s overprotectiveness of her white employers. It seems a very old-fashioned and out-of-date thing to bring to the stage. Frye deftly wrenches humor and pathos out of it, but it was clearly originally intended as a palliative for ’60s white audiences.
It’s not surprising that veteran Atlanta actors Tom Key and Tess Malis Kincaid get a lot of mileage out of playing the Draytons. Tracy and Hepburn were a little too old for the roles, and there’s a spryness and modernity — even an erotic charge — in Key’s and Kincaid’s sparring that emerges as the characters’ progressive principles are put to the test in their personal lives. But in the end their reactions are, as in the film, understandable without being very sympathetic. The play doesn’t want to make them truly awful, so it never delves too deeply into what their comic reactions might be made of. The Key character later explains that his resistance arises primarily from concern for two good, loving people in a cruel world. It’s a beautiful speech, but not entirely convincing considering what we’ve witnessed. It was not that concern that made the Draytons nearly faint when they first met John.
The play also puts the final speech — the words of wisdom and the ultimate judgment — into the mouth of the white patriarch: once he’s sorted things out, all is good. But the black father’s struggle is left unresolved. In a play where everything else is so tidy, it stands out as a bit of messiness.
Incredibly, in spite of all the problems, the play’s central assertion that love conquers all never seems cynical or manipulative, which is one of its triumphs. But the truth is that most progressive people are comfortable with the notion that the political principles we exhort and hold dear can be challenging to apply in our daily personal lives. There isn’t enough inherent drama or revealing comedy in bringing the distance between what we say and what we do to the stage. A little something more is wanted, and it never quite materializes.
In the end, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is a play to like, but not to love and cherish.