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Black Tie

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Carolyn McCormick, Daniel Davis, Ari Brandt, and Gregg Edelman.
Photo by James Leynse.

Black Tie, A.R. Gurney's new play at Primary Stages, features a family of the type that Gurney has documented so frequently over the years: the withering WASP. But it is not, strictly speaking, about them—or about any people at all. Of most interest to Gurney in this literal comedy of manners is the evisceration of civilized society—and the notion that its destruction might be a good thing. Whether you agree with his premise or his moral may well determine the extent to which you're captivated by this play, but no orientation of your own opinion is likely to make you miss the human touch in this humane, commendable work.

That's not to say you won't notice its absence. Well into the first exchange between Curtis (Gregg Edelman), a middle-aged society man, and the ghost of his father (Daniel Davis), an even more elegant social scion from back when that meant something, it's clear that the specifics of this one family aren't particularly meaningful. Curtis, for example, is concerned with nothing more than donning his father's tuxedo so he can toast his son, Teddy, at that night's rehearsal dinner for Teddy's impending wedding to Maya. He's also a bit uncertain about whether the speech will entertain, include Teddy's friends, and live up to the one his father gave him years earlier, but, with Dad's help, is confident he'll work that out. No, what matters is that the tuxedo—from shirt to shoes, from tie to trousers, from jacket to garters (yes, Curtis puts some on)—reveals Curtis as a father of the utmost refinement.

Or does that actually matter at all? It doesn't seem to. Curtis's wife Mimi (Carolyn McCormick) and daughter Elsie (Elvy Yost) have other issues on their mind: the nature of the precisely ordered seating that Elsie's girlfriends are destroying; the shock comedian, also Maya's now-gay ex-boyfriend, who's decided he wants to perform and probably bump Curtis from the schedule); or the minuscule fact that Teddy (Art Brand) and Maya just had a brutal fight and aren't sure they want to go through with it. Is hanging on to a fancy suit, and all the occasion that goes with it, worth disrupting everything else?

Even if that were really the fundamental question, it would be sufficient to make Black Tie a fascinating glimpse at how the well-dressed stay that way (or not). But it's the feelings, expectations, and history simmering away underneath that prove far more engrossing than the petty squabbles that characterize the way this family relates to each other. It's not anyone's clothes, the rehearsal dinner, or even the wedding itself that's at stake—but, in fact, the elemental (and now so outrĂ©) notion that everything means something, and that therefore everything is important.

All this is exemplified in Curtis's father, who's a stickler for correctness and the classics. For example, he insists that Curtis's attire is not a tuxedo, but "evening clothes," and that the evening's event is properly known as a "bridal dinner." He freely quotes Mark Twain, Chaucer, and Alexander Pope, and fondly recalls movies with Fred Astaire and Jean Harlow. He knows how to sketch out a speech, from the introduction to the slam-bang conclusion, tastefully disapproves of the modest venue chosen (a mainstream hotel near Lake George, designed with cozy, backwoods kitsch by John Arnone), and knows how to salvage a meaningful relationship that may be going south. The only thing he doesn't automatically know—but seems willing to learn—is how much the world has changed since his own marriage and, well, death.

Curtis wants to maintain and pass along his father's knowledge and command of etiquette, but is finding few willing receptacles, making prep for the dinner an increasingly harried affair. A wedding representing the fusion of two young lives as shepherded by a man who's trying to link them through decades—centuries, even—of which they have no knowledge or affection will not be smooth. It's to Gurney's considerable credit that even as Curtis's world shudders, the play doesn't, instead focusing ever more tightly on what Curtis must pass down that the young people aren't aware they need. But the battle to get to the point where that's possible is a lively and engaging one that, depending on your predilections (and, perhaps, your age) you may find rife with laughs.

For what it's worth, I laughed very little—not because what's onstage didn't work under Mark Lamos's direction, but because it did. The characters' obstacles, and especially Curtis's increasing exasperation at bringing order to his chaotic offspring, struck me less as funny than a reflection of the battles that have defined contemporary American culture. (Republicans versus Democrats in Congress, anyone?) Many in the audience around me disagreed, and chortled every other minute as Curtis was tortured anew, his carefully constructed house of propriety kept finding ever new ways to topple against his French cuffs and worsted-wool dinner jacket.

Much of this is due to Edelman, who may read as too much an Everyman to be believably caught between societal strata, but who plays understated mania with gusto grand enough to send your own arms flailing. McCormick, looking absolutely stunning in Jess Goldstein's costumes, is magnetic as the demanding, forward-thinking, and yet still tradition-bound Mimi. Brand and Yost are both serviceable as the callow, self-centered children, but are straddled with one-hue characters and the immense acting difficulty of almost exclusively talking about and playing against so many exciting-sounding characters that never appear onstage. (Gurney's reliance on them to push his story along is the most distracting and damaging of his writing's few technical failings here.)

Davis, however, is perfection as the epitome of high-toned class and taste, always walking around the room (and, more than once, through walls) in a way that suggests he could never spill a drop of martini even if he wanted to. Making little effort to obscure his crisp British accent, Davis approaches each of Curtis's new challenges with thoughtful grace, even as the event rapidly becomes something the character never considered possible. (His mild-aneurysm reaction upon learning that Maya is an African-American whose birth parents were a half-black, half-Vietnamese mother and a Peruvian father, and her adoptive step-father is Croatian, alone is priceless.) Throughout, he constantly recalls a more generous age that we instantly wish we could be a part of—even though our hearts and minds insist that things are almost certainly much better now.

It's Davis's energy and twinkle that keep that an open question long after it seems it should have been answered. From first scene to last, Davis is the heart of Black Tie, and what makes it different from any other "times are a-changin'" play that thinks letting go is the only way to go. Neither Gurney nor Lamos pretends they're going anywhere else, and certainly the writing and staging are sturdy enough to make that an enjoyable journey. But with Davis as your guide to a now-vanished era where how you behaved truly dictated who you were, don't be surprised if you leave the theatre thinking the past never looked or sounded so good.

Black Tie
Through March 20
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison.
Tickets online and current performance schedule: TicketCentral

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