nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
February 3, 2011
Now for something light. Forget the chaos in Cairo, the sex scandals in Italy, clandestine maneuverings in Pakistan, unemployment, and the long New York winter. Instead, try 90 minutes of A.R. Gurney’s comedy, Black Tie, now playing at Primary Stages, for a lighthearted romp about what really matters—manners.
In typical fashion, Gurney focuses on the way things were, should be, and no longer are in the world of thoroughbreds: that is, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. In the play, which takes place in the present, Curtis and Mimi are dressing for their son Teddy’s rehearsal dinner when Elsie, their daughter, enters repeatedly with a series of disconcerting messages indicating that their party plans are unraveling beyond control. Also present is Curtis’s father, who is dead but very much present as the ultimate guide on how things are said and done—despite the abyss between the world as he left it and the current one, which he barely comprehends. Only Curtis can see and hear him.
The play opens in an old hotel caught in a '50s time warp—but the best the Adirondacks has to offer. Curtis is trying on his tux jacket in front of a full-length mirror. His reflection is none other than that of his father, who steps out of the mirror to admire Curtis’s jacket, once his and now newly tailored to fit his son. Despite the casual nature of the dinner, Curtis is set on wearing it. We also learn that Teddy, the groom, is wearing a dinner jacket passed down by Curtis—all this in the way of linking the generations and passing along proprieties and attitudes that befit this select group of people. In the play, Gurney refers to this as continuity.
But, alas, all is not as neat as it seems. While Curtis is an obedient student of Protestant ethics, eager to step into his father’s shoes, they don’t quite fit. As his father is quibbling over semantics—gentleman say trousers not pants, orchestra not combo, dinner jacket not tuxedo—the dinner’s careful seating arrangements are being upturned by a smitten friend of the bride, the menu is challenged by an Orthodox Jewish guest, a surprise arrival promises to usurp Curtis as toastmaster with an hour of standup comedy, and the groom confesses he has cold feet.
As usual, Gurney’s dialog is sharp. Without a pause or much of a rise, Curtis declares, "I will not be called goyim at my own family wedding." Is it an anti-Semitic remark, discomfort with the new cultural mix, or simply an inbred declarative sentence? But the moment is gone, the play has moved on. The cultural divide between these even-tempered Protestants on this big day and their Italian, Greek, or Jewish counterparts at a family wedding is glaring. In a hilarious sort of way, emotions barely register on the human Richter Scale. Was ever a son as obedient as Curtis? No matter what his father suggests, Curtis is in agreement. He is easing into everything his father ever was, despite its irrelevance.
Director Mark Lamos extracts seamless performances from his polished cast. Daniel Davis stands out as Curtis’s father. Pleasingly dogmatic, he is as flamboyant as his ethic will allow him to be as he emphasizes the importance of quoting Byron, Chaucer, and if necessary, Conrad. Gregg Edelman plays the pliable Curtis with credibility; Carolyn McCormick gives Mimi natural confidence, making it conceivable that she might indeed shrug off each succeeding disruption to the rehearsal dinner. Elvy Yost, in her off–Broadway debut as Elsie, raises the temperature somewhat as she delivers increasingly bleak news. And some of the news is funny indeed. The warm, accommodating Mimi discovers that the bride’s parents find her snooty, because of the correct wording of her invitation, because of the paper it was written on! Only Teddy, played by Ari Brand, shows what human feelings are made of when he declares he has cold feet. But, Curtis, after all his prepping, is ready. He steps in with a well-learned lesson for his son to consider. There is, after all, a love-test handed down from father to son and now to grandson. The continuity is complete.
The play takes place in one room of a hotel suite conceived by set designer John Arnone, who emphasizes the change in times with a plaid couch, floor-to-ceiling paneling, and a long gathered valance to re-create a den from the 1950s. Costumes by Jess Goldstein are fitting, and the lighting, designed by Stephen Strawbridge, delivers a very satisfying effect.
Father of the groom Curtis simply wants to make a memorable toast. But before he is able to raise his glass, he must defend the time-honored ways of his past, including his attire. Cultures clash when a surprise guest is announced, threatening to throw convention out the window. Curtis finds that balancing the standards of his late father and the needs of his future family may prove too messy for a black tie affair.