So guess who’s coming to dinner this time? In Marisa Smith’s satiric gloss on the 1967 film that was a last hurrah for Spencer Tracy, it sure isn’t Sidney Poitier. More like a cuter Jerry Falwell: a handsome, educated evangelical Christian with honorable designs on the journalist daughter of well-heeled, liberal New Yorkers who seek to “save” their titular offspring before her salvation-slinging new boyfriend can.
The play, which premiered at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater in 2012, makes its Cambridge debut in an exemplary Nora Theatre Company production at Central Square Theater (through Aug. 2).
But with all due respect to the diplomatic born-again played here by Lewis D. Wheeler, the audience at the performance I attended was less interested in who was coming to dinner than in who was hosting the meal: namely, screen and television actress Jennifer Coolidge — she of the “American Pie” and “Legally Blonde” franchises, the CBS series “2 Broke Girls,” the sultry purr and the perfectly bee-stung pout.
Upon Coolidge’s first entrance, as doting dragon mom Kate Hartley, there was considerable applause. And thereafter, a healthy contingent of the audience commented, regularly and loudly, during the performance, on the actress’s general adorableness and thespian chops. But if Coolidge’s fans behaved as if they were facing a TV rather than a stage, they were at least right. The performer takes what could be an Amanda Wingfield in reverse (no Bible-thumping gentleman callers for her offspring!) and instead makes her as daffy and sweet as she is manipulative and snarky.
And Smith’s play, entertaining but meandering, needs whatever layers the excellent cast can bring to it. “Saving Kitty” has a decent premise: the laying bare of one of the last prejudices permitted sophisticated liberals and riffing on its clichés. Moreover, there is some fairly funny dialogue, much of it emanating from the deliberately outrageous Kate. About to serve dinner, the matriarch bats her eyelashes at the Christian, frets that she hopes he eats lamb, then adds that, if not, she has “some loaves and fishes” in the freezer. But the play, part sitcom, part rom-com, doesn’t have much to say about religious tolerance; it just bats it around.
Kate (who is clearly living vicariously though her daughter, her own 15 minutes of fame, as the “town kleptomaniac” on “One Life to Live,” being way behind her) tries to at once discourage and seduce forbearing suitor Paul, who gorges on his hostess’s homemade sweets while trying to refrain from gorging on sex with her pert and willing daughter. Kate’s equally horrified but less confrontational spouse, United Nations bureaucrat Huntley, stays buried in his laptop and an unfolding UN crisis until the nubile skeleton in his closet is exposed, much to Kate’s embarrassment and Kitty’s disillusion. And the ambitious if fickle title character, who would seem to have made a habit of bringing home what her mother considers “inappropriate” men, clearly enjoys pushing everyone’s buttons.
But “Saving Kitty” is a harmless summer entertainment, the sort of thing, complete with movie star, one used to have to travel to Cape Cod to see. And Nora artistic director Lee Mikeska Gardner’s production is both stylish and well appointed, the Hartleys’ elegant living room accessorized in Steven Royal’s scenic design by expensive furnishings and, glowing outside a large picture window, the Manhattan skyline. Barbara Douglas’s costumes, sunny and snug for Kate, preppy or trashy for Kitty, are just right.
And the rest of the ensemble, if given less delicious opportunity than the statuesque blonde best known as Stiffler’s mom, nonetheless keeps up with her. Spry, bow-tied Alexander Cook is a sly tactician of a Huntley, Lydia Barnett-Mulligan an appealing if self-centered Kitty. As for Wheeler’s articulate Christian in the lions’ den, sneaking a slug from the cocktail corner or an éclair on the run as he wrestles other appetites, he may not be as perfect as Sidney Poitier, but he’s much more endearingly human.
Carolyn Clay was for many years the theater editor and chief drama critic for the Boston Phoenix. She is a past winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.