March 6, 2011

Is "Black Tie" Still Fashionable?

One of the best experiences I ever had in the theater was seeing A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters.  Many times.  And that’s a large part of why I so loved it.  The story is told through the letters of its two characters who start writing to one another when they are in grade school and continue to do so for the next 50 years.

The actors playing the roles sit onstage, letters in hand, and read them, which makes it comparatively easy for actors to perform since they don't have to memorize their parts. So the producers of the original 1989 production came up with a brilliant idea: they constantly changed the cast, which gave a succession of fantastic actors the chance to play the parts and people like me the chance to see the play reinterpreted for as many times as we could afford another ticket.

I had seen and enjoyed other Gurney plays before but seeing Love Letters so may times won him a special place in my heart. A lingering affection for the playwright has caused me to make a special effort to keep up with his work since then, including seeing the latest, Black Tie, which Primary Stages is presenting at the 59E59 Theaters through March 27.

Like most Gurney plays, Black Tie deals with members of the privileged white upper middle-class who are struggling to adjust to changing mores. I’d heard it was Gurney’s best in years (click here to read some of the reviews on StageGrade). But while his A-list works like The Dining Room, The Cocktail Hour and, of course, Love Letters embedded real emotions inside their entertaining social satires, this one seems to me to settle for easy laughs. I'm giving it a gentleman's C.

The plot centers around the plight of Curtis, a middle-aged ad exec whose grown son is about to get married. The play opens as the father of the groom is getting ready for the rehearsal dinner. It’s to be a casual affair but he wants to wear the tuxedo (the titular formal wear) his dead father bequeathed him and to give a speech similar to the one his dad gave at the dinner the night before his own wedding. 

Of course, the bride, who just happens to be a multi-culti mix of black, Asian and Eastern European, has other ideas.  And thus, established WASP traditions are once again pitted against the more laissez-faire values of today.

But the battle lines seem false this time out.  The Playbill says that Black Tie is set in the present, which is confirmed by the late appearance of an Obama T shirt. So it’s hard to believe that Curtis, a man in his 50s, would be as shocked by the breaking down of old mid-century customs.  I mean where was he in the '70s? Hell, I doubt even “Mad Man’s” Don Draper would feel so dismayed. 

I’ll confess that it also bothered me that we never get to see the bride.  Instead, we get to see a lot of the dead father's ghost, who in Blithe Spirit-style can only be seen by Curtis and the audience. They have lively and frequently funny discussions when they’re alone and even when Curtis’ wife Mimi or his son Teddy and daughter Elsie, who appear to notice nothing awry, are in the room.

The cast does a nice enough job, as does Gurney’s frequent collaborator director Mark Lamos (click here to read an interview with him).  But there are moments when Gregg Edelman’s Curtis strays into the one-note territory of the befuddled sitcom dad, while Daniel Davis (the audience’s favorite) seems too fond of the laughs his portrayal of the dead dad draws.

The real star of the show may be John Arnone’s spot-on recreation of a room in a less than first-class hotel in the Adirondacks, complete with wood paneling, plaid upholstery, and a tiny moose head over the closet door. In fact, the whole creative team deserves kudos, with another special shout out for sound designer John Gromada.

Black Tie is a comedy and so it's no spoiler to tell you that everything works out in the end, which comes a tidy 90 minutes after its start. Your enjoyment may depend on your nostalgia about the good old days when you could judge a man's character by the jacket he wore. But I’m no longer sure those good old days were all that good. My affection for Gurney continues but seeing Black Tie once was more than enough for me.

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