CAMBRIDGE — The time is now, the place is a Fifth Avenue apartment in Manhattan, and the game is “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?,” as Kate and Huntley wait to see what kind of prospective husband their only daughter, Kitty, is bringing home. They’d be OK, they aver, with a black son-in-law. Paul, however, turns out to be an evangelical Christian from Virginia, and that has Kate, at least, wondering whether Kitty doesn’t need saving from her intended and his church.
Marisa Smith’s comedy, which premiered at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater in 2012, was a little fluffy in its original incarnation, but it’s been improved since, and the Nora Theatre Company production at Central Square Theater is so beautifully directed, acted, and presented that you could mistake the play for Noël Coward.
The good news starts with Steven Royal’s extravagant set, which conveys the opulence of an Upper East Side flat: a foyer as well as a sitting room, a creditable Manhattan skyline outside the picture windows, chair-rail molding everywhere, elegant furniture (including a leather ottoman), a sideboard with high-end alcohol, lots of modern art, and an oil portrait, pointedly lit by John R. Malinowski, that looks just like Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, the actress who plays Kitty. Barbara Douglass’s costume palette encompasses both Victoria’s Secret lingerie and a bright blue burqa.
As they wait for Kitty and Paul to arrive, Kate and Huntley sample a 20-year-old Bordeaux (“A hint of pencil lead”) and debate whether Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte has the darker complexion. Huntley is the director of public information at the United Nations; Kate played town kleptomaniac Mary Davenport on the TV soap “As the World Turns.” They’re concerned for their daughter: Dartmouth graduate Kitty is the producer of a TV news program, and Kate thinks she should have her own show, “like Diane Sawyer or Katie Couric.”
The first act of “Saving Kitty” — the play runs 2½ hours with one intermission — presents Paul as an infomercial for evangelicals, who, he explains, are not all fundamentalists. Paul has a PhD in education from UCLA, he believes in evolution, and his church has named him principal of a school it’s opening in the Bronx. Still, that doesn’t stop Kate from coming at him like a lion eyeing an early Christian. She swivels between hugely intelligent and weirdly obtuse, but she’s “on stage” every second, and when she calls former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “I’m-a-Dinner-Jacket” or asks what a vegan is, you wonder whether it’s not all part of an act.
It’s a demanding role, in any case, and Massachusetts native Jennifer Coolidge, best known for her appearances in the “American Pie” and “Legally Blonde” film franchises, does full justice to it. Nora artistic director Lee Mikeska Gardner, who helms this production, gives her plenty of room, and Coolidge takes it, displaying superb comic timing when, for example, the burqa comes off and she says, “I’m born again!”
Her three costars hold their own. Alexander Cook offers a professorial, laptop-obsessed Huntley whose mind seems perpetually at the office — where he has a secret. Cook also does a mean pileated-woodpecker call. Barnett-Mulligan’s perky, giddy, eyelash-batting Kitty is totally taken with herself in a totally infectious way. And Lewis D. Wheeler’s Paul is a model of open-mindedness and Southern charm, unfazed by Kate’s most outrageously loaded questions. “Saving Kitty” may preach tolerance in religion, but its real subject is relationships, where tolerance is a saving grace.
Play by Marisa Smith
Lee Mikeska Gardner
Set, Steven Royal. Lights, John R. Malinowski. Costumes, Barbara Douglass.
Nora Theatre Company
At: Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through Aug. 2. Tickets: $15-$74. 866-811-4111, www.centralsquare theater.org