Guess What’s Coming to Dinner (A 10-Minute Play)

Cast of Characters (2M/2W)

[For more detail – including spoilers – see page ii, following the script.]

Maury:      Maurice Astorfeller – a charming 60-something retired diplomat, former U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. Although he has an American accent, his manner is more European.

Hennie:      Henrietta Marx Astorfeller – Maury’s wife (and Harpo Marx’s granddaughter), a 60-something classical concert harpist, now retired from world tours. Cultured and equally charming, but more down-to-earth than her husband. 

Ben:      Benjamin Astorfeller – their 30-something son, a brilliant cyberneticist and inventor. Although a “nerd” by profession, he is relaxed, self-confident, and worldly.

Andie:      Andrea Andropopolis – Ben’s fiancée, a 20-something woman with a stiff demeanor and stilted formal speech, at least for most of the play.

Scene

The living room of a elegant townhouse in Georgetown, D.C.

Time

The present … or near future. Wintertime.

GUESS WHAT’S COMING TO DINNER

SETTING:            A living room. Two couches face each other across a CS coffee table, on which sit two glasses of wine. A harp stands on USL. A portrait of MAURY in ambassador garb hangs above a fireplace USC.

AT RISE:            HENNIE is sitting on the couch/chairs facing SL. MAURY enters from OSR and sits next to her.

MAURY

I just spoke with Jarvis. He assures me that the table is set precisely the way you like.

HENNIE

I don’t care. I’m just so excited, Maury! Our baby boy is returning home!

MAURY

It’s only for a visit, Hennie. And Benjamin’s not a baby anymore.

HENNIE

Oh, he’ll always be my baby.

MAURY

And Georgetown is not the home he grew up in.

HENNIE

Benjy grew up all over the world. His home is wherever we are.

MAURY

Well, we finally get to meet the girlfriend.

HENNIE

Not just girlfriend, Maury. Fiancée!

MAURY

Yes. “Andy,” is it?

HENNIE

“Andrea,” I think. I’m just happy he’s found someone to get him out of that cybernetics lab occasionally.

MAURY

He does seem to be doing important work, Hennie.

HENNIE

I’m certainly proud of him – nominated for a Nobel prize!

MAURY

For some breakthrough in artificial intelligence and robotics I don’t really understand.

HENNIE

But there’s more to life than work, Maury.

MAURY

Well, food, of course.

HENNIE

Just food?

MAURY

(Caressing her hair.) There is that other thing you’re so good at.

HENNIE

(Rhetorically, grinning.) Aren’t you sweet? (beat) But speaking of food, I had Bertha prepare Benjy’s favorite for dinner. Hope Andrea likes it.

MAURY

I certainly don’t.

HENNIE

Now, be nice.

MAURY

Nice? I’m a diplomat, for God’s sake?

HENNIE

Try practicing it at home for a change. And it won’t hurt you to eat something other than fish and chips for one night.

MAURY

You’re such a tease. British cuisine is too often maligned. When did we ever have fish and chips during my stint in England?

HENNIE

Well, we didn’t always have fish and chips. I think the Queen served bangers and mash once.

MAURY

Oh, you!

HENNIE

That warm beer used to make me belch during concert performances.

MAURY

I thought that was just percussion your grandfather taught you to throw into your harp playing.

HENNIE

Now who’s teasing?

(Doorbell chimes.)

HENNIE

Oh, there they are!

MAURY

(Standing and calling out toward OSL.) No, Jarvis, I’ll answer it. You can take their wraps.

(MAURY exits OSL. HENNIE stands.)

BEN (OS)

Hi, Dad!

MAURY (OS)

(Jovially.) Come on in, you two!

(MAURY, BEN, and ANDIE enter from OSL.)

HENNIE

(Throwing her arms around BEN and kissing him.) Benjy!

BEN

(Both embarrassed and enjoying the affection.) Mom.

HENNIE

(Turning to ANDIE.) And who do we have here?

BEN

Mom, Dad, here she is! Andie, allow me to introduce my parents: The Honorable Maurice Astorfeller, former Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s.

ANDIE

(She is pleasantly polite but a bit stiff.) I am honored, sir.

(She extends her hand to shake.)

MAURY

The pleasure is all mine, my dear.

(Bows and kisses the back of her hand. Then surprised by her cold hands.)

Oh. I guess it is chillier here in D.C. than you southern girls are used to.

BEN

And – the toast of Kennedy Center and Royal Festival Hall – the world-renowned harpist, Henrietta Marx.

HENNIE

(Protests, embarrassed by his effusive introduction.) Benjy!

ANDIE

Ma’am.

(She extends her hand to shake.)

HENNIE

Welcome to our humble abode, Andrea!

(Holds her arms and kisses her cheek.)

My, you are cold! Come and sit by the fire, dear.

(HENNIE sits, BEN and ANDIE sit facing her.)

BEN

Just “Andie,” Mom.

ANDIE

It is my nickname.

MAURY

Oh, from your last name. “Andropolis,” isn’t it.

BEN

Something like that.

MAURY

(To ANDIE.) What can I get you to drink, my dear?

ANDIE

Nothing, sir, thank you.

MAURY

Oh, a teetotaler, eh?

BEN

Not really, Dad.

MAURY

Freshen up your wine, my virtuoso wife?

HENNIE

(Fondly returning his teasing with her use of his honorific.) No, I’m set, your Excellency.

MAURY

(His acknowledging smile is equally fond.) Carlsberg beer for you, Benjamin?

BEN

You know me too well, Dad. (To ANDIE.) A holdover from my misspent youth in Denmark.

(MAURIE exits OSR.)

HENNIE

Hardly misspent, Benjy. You excelled at your studies at the finest high school in Copenhagen.

BEN

Ah, but those wild parties with Prince Freddie and his crowd at the Amalienborg Palace.

ANDIE

Ben, I am shocked.

HENNIE

Don’t let him fool you, Andie. I know for a fact that Queen Margrethe kept Frederik on a tight leash.

BEN

One can fantasize.

HENNIE

The two of them spent most of their free time playing video games.

BEN

Hardly “video games.” We hacked into the World Bank. How I paid my way through college.

HENNIE

There you go again. Your college tuition was a perk of your father’s office.

MAURY

(Reenters from OSR and hands BEN a beer.)

Here’s your beer, Son.

BEN

Thanks, Dad.

HENNIE

Maury, Benjy has been filling Andie’s head with tall tales of his teens.

MAURY

(Retakes his seat next to HENNIE.)

Ben’s IQ is exceeded only by his imagination. It’s why he’s so good at his work.

HENNIE

So, tell us about yourself, Andie.

ANDIE

I suppose you could say that I am in cybernetics, Mrs. Astorfeller.

HENNIE

Oh, “Henrietta,” please.

ANDIE

Thank you, Henrietta.

MAURY

Cybernetics? That’s Ben’s field.

BEN

It’s how we met, Dad. Andie is the leading practitioner of humanoid psychodynamics.

HENNIE

Whatever that is. Where are you from, Andie?

ANDIE

A small town near Durham, North Carolina.

MAURY

Research Triangle Park, where Ben works?

ANDIE

Born and raised.

HENNIE

Your parents?

BEN

Andie is an orphan, Mom.

HENNIE

Oh, I’m so sorry.

ANDIE

Don’t be. I was raised in a nurturing environment.

BEN

Hey! Enough inquisition! Why don’t you tell Andie about yourselves.

MAURY

Well, as you know, Andie, I spent my career in the diplomatic corps. After paying my dues in little more than gofer jobs at embassies and consulates in the third world, my first ambassadorial posting was in Luxemburg. From then on, I remained in Europe.

HENNIE

Tell her about that time in Norway.

MAURY

When I was presented to King Harald?

HENNIE

No, no. The sauna story.

MAURY

Oh. Well, Prime Minister Brundtland invited Hennie and me to spend the weekend at her home. It included an afternoon with her family in their sauna.

ANDIE

That sounds nice.

BEN

What he’s not telling you is that Norwegians sauna in the nude. (Laughing.) Mom and Dad were beet red even before the steam was turned up.

(MAURY and HENNIE laugh. ANDIE smiles.)

MAURY

Comes with the territory. When in Rome.

ANDIE

What about you, Henrietta? You are a classical harpist?

HENNIE

Yes. I trained at Julliard and played with the New York Philharmonic before my soloist career. (beat) I met Benjy’s father during a performance at Grand Duke Jean’s palace in Luxemburg.

MAURY

Little Prince Guillaume accidently knocked over her harp. I ran up to help her set it right again.

HENNIE

We looked into each other’s eyes…

MAURY

And well…

ANDIE

Love at first sight.

HENNIE

(HENNIE and MAURY smile at each other fondly.)

BEN

Mom, tell Andie about your grandfather.

HENNIE

Arthur?

BEN

(Scoffing.) “Arthur!” Andie, my great-grandfather was none other than Harpo Marx.

ANDIE

I am not familiar with classical musicians, Henrietta. Was this Harpo Marx also accomplished?

MAURY

(Grinning.) No, Andie. Harpo Marx of the Marx Brothers!

ANDIE

I see. You come from a musical family then.

(HENNIE and MAURY are increasingly nonplussed.)

HENNIE

Well, that’s not what he’s know for, of course. But actually, yes. Grandpa was also a fine harpist. It’s how he got his stage name.

BEN

(Steering the conversation away from ANDIE’s cluelessness.) So, what’s for dinner tonight?

HENNIE

We’re having your favorite – calamari tacos with lobster sauce.

BEN

My favorite when I was ten! You’re serving that?!

ANDIE

That is satisfactory, Ben. I shall not be eating this evening, Henrietta. Doctor’s orders.

HENNIE

Hunh?

ANDIE

Please do not worry about me. I am content just to spend time with Ben and his parents.

HENNIE

Uh … uh … I don’t know what to say.

BEN

(Abruptly.) Dad, why don’t you and Mom go see how Bertha is doing.

MAURY

Yes, Benjamin. Come, Henny.

(MAURY and HENNIE stand and exit OSR.)

ANDIE

(No longer stiff.) That was rude, Ben.

BEN

They were making you feel uncomfortable.

ANDIE

I think I was making them feel uncomfortable.

BEN

Never happen.

ANDIE

Your parents are lovely, Ben. (beat) But I don’t think they like me.

BEN

Nonsense!

ANDIE

I get so nervous meeting new people. I know I can come off as being aloof or something.

BEN

Andrea Andropopolis! You’re too self-conscious about that.

ANDIE

Sometimes I think I should have gone to finishing school instead of MIT.

BEN

Don’t be ridiculous! Immersed yourself more in pop culture than in Asimov robot stories perhaps. (beat) They were just unprepared for your not eating or drinking anything tonight.

ANDIE

I’m afraid I hurt your mother’s feelings.

BEN

What feelings?

ANDIE

Just because she delegates the cooking doesn’t mean she doesn’t take pride in her menu planning.

BEN

Don’t worry about it. She may seem soft on the outside, but inside she’s tough as nails, like Dad.

ANDIE

It’s just that I really should avoid alcohol.

BEN

I know. And I imagine that fried squid with fermented beans and garlic ginger cornstarch isn’t normally prescribed for morning sickness.

ANDIE

(Nauseated.) Not exactly. (beat) I suppose I could eat the taco shells.

BEN

(Hesitates.) Andie, I have a confession to make.

ANDIE

(Reassuring.) I know you haven’t told your parents about the pregnancy yet, Ben.

BEN

No, that’s not it. (beat) You see, those aren’t really my parents.

ANDIE

What do you mean?

BEN

In a way they are, I guess. But, actually, my parents died a few years ago.

ANDIE

But…

BEN

I missed them so much, I programmed their personalities into our first two android robots.

ANDIE

Oh! They’re so lifelike!

BEN

All thanks to your work in robopsychology! Now let’s just relax and enjoy the evening. There’s a lot more of my Mom and Dad stored in their memory banks for us to treasure – tonight and in the years to come.

(BLACKOUT)

(THE END)

Cast of Characters

(Including spoilers.)

Maury:      Maurice Astorfeller – a charming 60-something retired diplomat, former U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. Although he has an American accent, his manner is more European. It is not until his obedient last line and exit that one might suspect that he is other than what he seems.

Hennie:      Henrietta Marx Astorfeller – Maury’s wife (and Harpo Marx’s granddaughter), a 60-something concert harpist, now retired from world tours. Cultured and equally charming, but more down-to-earth than her husband. They both are immensely likeable people – the parents of one’s fondest dreams. As with Maury, it is only her last line and meek exit that might make her seem a bit “off.”

Ben:      Benjamin Astorfeller – their 30-something son, a brilliant cyberneticist and inventor of the first AI robot. Although he may be a “nerd” by profession, he is relaxed, self-confident, and worldly. He displays warm affection for Maury and Hennie, up until dismissing them. He remains affectionate and protective of Andie – and of his actual parents – throughout.

Andie:      Andrea Andropopolis – Ben’s fiancée, a 20-something woman (ideally with a knock-out figure) with a stiff demeanor and stilted formal speech – somewhat like the Star Trek character, Data (like Data, she does not use contractions in her speech), and like Pygmalion/My Fair Lady‘s Eliza Doolittle at her first public tryout – at least for most of the play.

                  And that is the challenge for the actress – to give the initial impression that she might be an advanced android robot, while remaining believable as what she really is: a shy nerd who uses the crutch of polite formality to handle social interaction.

Author Bio:

Quite some time ago, Don Grimme (DonGrimme.com) earned a BA in Dramatic Arts and performed on stage in New York City and Europe, but soon discovered that a steady pay check was more conducive to his desired lifestyle. Thirty-five years later* – upon retirement from a career as a management trainer and author (e.g., The New Manager’s Tool Kit, AMACOM, 2008) – he returned to the passion of his youth: the theatre.

This time around, he has also taken up playwriting. Thus far he has created two full-length plays, five one-acts, and over two dozen shorts, many of which have been produced on stage or performed by professional actors at monthly readings. [“The 7-11 Butterfly Effect” is his first short story.]

* Yes, he is “old,” but his plays are young at heart and in mind, and contain characters of diverse ages.

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