Black Tie Too Formal for A. R. Gurney

02/16/2011 2:00 AM |

Black Tie

Written by A. R. Gurney
Directed by Mark Lamos

Privilege is a costume worn with increasing reluctance and discomfort by three generations of a family gathered for a wedding at a hotel in upstate New York in A. R. Gurney‘s latest, Black Tie (through March 27). Primary Stages‘ premiere of the ensemble comedy, directed unremarkably by Mark Lamos, maximizes the intergenerational banter and class-coded humor. Like Gurney’s best-known play, The Dining Room, and his most recent, Office Hours, Black Tie introduces a wrinkle in time to throw the lives of its WASPy characters off balance.

The night of the rehearsal dinner, Curtis (Greg Edelman), the father of the groom, tries on his late father’s tux, when the slightly tacky hotel room’s mirror turns transparent and out steps dad’s ghost (Daniel Davis). The moment plays less like Hamlet and more like Casper, the mild-mannered Curtis greeting this idealized memory of a patriarch with a friendly, “Hi Dad!” Much oh-how-the-times-have-changed humor passes between the pair for the majority of the following 90 minutes, Curtis’s lame admissions that his son’s wedding is a more multicultural, less button-down affair than his spectral father hoped met with increasingly flabbergasted surprise by the deceased. The two contrive to elevate the assembled diverse masses to upper-class status with disproportionately formal garments and a speech speckled with quotations from Romantic poets.

The frivolous mannered comedy is eventually, thankfully, displaced by the more immediate needs of Curtis’s understandably irritated wife Mimi (Carolyn McCormick) and second thoughts-having son Teddy (Ari Brand). A scene between the groom and his parents (with minimal ghostly interventions) forms Gurney’s emotional centerpiece, playing on the titular theme of binding social customs made tangibly constricting through stiff dress codes. Teddy, pacing the hotel set (by John Arnone) in his complimentary bathrobe and agitatedly recounting a dispute with his fiancée, re-enacts his response when she challenged him to “get real,” flashing his parents in one of the evening’s few surprisingly funny moments. Faced with so much guarded discussion about appropriate attire, the scene’s naked emotions provide the evening’s truest moments.

Well-grounded performances by McCormick and Brand bring Edelman into the fold and out of his sitcom-styled repartee with Davis, who, however charming in his Wildean grandiosity, remains far more out of step with the late-going realism than necessary. Gurney’s ill-fitting ghost comedy only encumbers the telling of a more interesting story about the changing significance of marriage and the communities formed by shared traditions. Next time out, the prolific playwright should just forget the dinner jacket and get real.

(photo credit: James Leynse)