’Tis the season for time capsules from the 1960s: The Ancient Rome–set musical farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opened on Broadway in 1962 (after a test run at D.C.’s National Theatre). The race-relations dramedy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner arrived in cinemas five years later. Both documents have been contemporized infinitesimally for their current stage iterations, and both are, broadly speaking, well, broad. But that’s no dismissal. These are energetically staged, well-performed crowd-pleasers to which you can bring your parents or older kids and trust that everyone will have a good time. The liberal homilies in Dinner are as righteous and convincingly recited as the songs in Forum are tuneful and lustily sung. Neither offers much revelation, but so what? The laughs are plentiful in both. As Forum’s ear-wormy opening number puts it: “Something for everyone/A comedy tonight!”
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, for all the ground it broke, is a period piece now. Todd Kreidler’s 2012 stage adaptation is set in 1967, the year of the film’s release. He’s expanded William Rose’s original screenplay with signpost lines like “Crêpes are all that’s left of the French in Algeria!” (That got an “oooooooooo” of concern from the Saturday matinee crowd.) This observation comes Matt Drayton (Tom Key), the white newspaperman originally played by Spencer Tracy, in his final screen role, who finds his liberal convictions tested when his daughter announces her whirlwind engagement to a black man.
Much of the audience will recall the movie starred Sidney Poitier, the epitome of screen dignity, as that prospective son-in-law, John Prentiss. The character is an internationally renowned physician of such sterling accomplishment and character that any parents would be delighted if their daughter married him. His perfection allowed the story to focus squarely on the “problem” of his blackness. Malcolm-Jamal Warner, stepping ably into the role here, has parent-pleasing credentials even stronger than Prentiss’—eight years as Theo Huxtable on The Cosby Show.
He’s solid if unsurprising in the part, projecting the same grace and decency Poitier brought to the film. Which is to say: He exhibits almost superhuman patience and calm. Prentiss is a widower, but the experience of losing his wife and child years earlier seems only to have strengthened him—he understands as few can that disappointment and suffering won’t kill him, because they haven’t. Poitier played the role clean-shaven, but Warner has a thin mustache like the one worn by Martin Luther King, Jr., whose name is a punchline in one scene. (That line was removed from some prints after King was assassinated in April 1968, when the film was still in cinemas.)
The King resemblance only deepens Prentiss’ moral authority, of course; allowing him a flaw would’ve been a more interesting choice. We don’t still require that our standard-bearers for interracial marriage be without sin, do we? (Or indeed, that interracial marriage have standard-bearers?) Taking on that question could’ve given the play some contemporary heat, but Kreidler’s script and Warner’s performance elide it. It’s a missed opportunity, even if what they’ve given us is very good.
Prentiss may tell Drayton that his optimistic fiancée (Bethany Anne Lind), 14 years his junior, believes “our children will all be presidents of the United States and have colorful administrations,” but the story is oddly lacking in new resonance for the Obama era. It’s simply a big, satisfying yarn of a drama that gives everyone in the large cast—both sets of parents; a loveable, hard-drinking priest; and the Drayton family’s long-serving black maid—an opportunity to speechify, with great eloquence, about their deeply felt feelings.
I enjoyed Lynda Gravatt’s speechifying most, in the role of Tilly, the maid. Initially, she’s even more suspicious of Prentiss than Mr. Drayton is. But when does a maid not get to steal every scene she’s in? Monsignor Ryan, the well-lubricated man of the cloth who’s on intimate terms with the Draytons even though they’re not religious, finds his part much expanded from the film. When he cites the scripture of John and Paul here, he’s talking about The Beatles. Michael Russotto lays the Irish accent on awfully thick, but he’s warm and winning.
Save for one sacrificial racist, there are no dumb or inarticulate characters, and everyone gets to speak his or her mind at length, which is one reason the play is 45 minutes longer than the movie, even discounting a very late-arriving intermission. Collapsing the film’s various locations into the Drayton’s prosperous San Francisco home—the handsome in-the-round set is by Kat Conley—works fine; this is a family story, after all. And director David Esbjornson has found small comic details even in serious scenes that go a long way toward keeping this from feeling like an anti-racism pep rally. There isn’t a trace of Katharine Hepburn’s acid wit in Tess Malis Kincaid’s dignified performance as Mrs. Drayton, but how could that ever be a fair fight? Kincaid brings gravitas and conviction, like everyone else.
If the play has done little to update the material, it’s also excised the film’s most 1967-under-glass moments. I missed the scene 35 minutes into the film where a white delivery boy arrives bearing steaks and dances from his van to the door of the Drayton house, where he’s joined by by Tilly’s young, beautiful black assistant, who starts watusi-ing right along with him. Where is the music coming from? The radio in the van? Whatever it is, it’s pure Laugh-In. The play ends with Stevie Wonder’s cover of “We Can Work It Out,” the Beatles song quoted by Monsignor Ryan earlier. It’s a choice that is, like the rest of the show, unimpeachable.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Alan Paul
Shakespeare Theatre Company at Sidney Harman Hall to Jan. 5
That goofy dance-off would’ve been right at home in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the sort of clownish enterprise that sustains copious ad-libbing and fourth-wall breaking. The three prosperous Roman houses that dominate the set look, in designer James Noone’s conception, deliberately cardboardlike and two-dimensional; it reminded me of the roughed-in backgrounds of the time-traveling Peabody & Sherman segments from Rocky & Bullwinkle reruns, which is a good indicator of the tone.
Well, OK—it’s bawdier than Rocky & Bullwinkle. The show now comes furnished with a Roman Polanski joke. “What, too soon?” asks Bruce Dow as Pseudolus, improvising till his round, red face turns blue. The scheming slave must win Philia (Lora Lee Gayer), a woman bred to be “Lovely” (cue song) and helpless, for his master, Hero (Owen Wilson lookalike Nick Verina, in a good-hearted but hapless Wilson-type role), in exchange for his promised freedom. The wrinkle is that the procurer Marcus Lycus (Danny Rutigliano) has already sold Philia to Miles Gloriosus, a military leader en route to collect his property. Edward Watts plays the part, looking like Justin Timberlake after two months of protein shakes and heavy lifting. (His fake, bulging quadriceps look only a little sillier than Michael Keaton’s plastic Batman abs.)
The jinks that ensue are, it will not surprise you to learn, of the hi- persuasion. There are multiple cases of mistaken identity, both accidental and deliberate. There are slaves (Tom Story’s aptly named Hysterium, memorably) and whores (Lisa Karlin’s aptly named Vibrata, memorably) who are all just stressed-out working stiffs. There are jokes that recur until they have no cur left. There are, above all, great songs well-sung: “Lovely” and “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” and “Impossible” will be elbowing each other in your mind’s ear on your way out.
That last one’s a duet by Hero and his father Senex (Steve Vinovich), who both want the same woman and can’t imagine she’d entertain the other. The sexual inefficiency of old men is discussed—a topic that comes up in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, too, funnily enough. But both shows make an encouraging case for vigor in middle age.