In his wry comedy “Black Tie,” A.R. Gurney presents his upper-class fan base with another occasion of bittersweet rumination on the decline of Western civilization as he knows it. The nominal issue here is whether it’s proper for a paterfamilias to wear formal evening attire to the rehearsal dinner he’s hosting for his son’s wedding. But behind its charming comic facade the play poses more unsettling questions about the compromises demanded of the old WASP social order. Although Gurney’s beleaguered hero amiably concedes the field to the forces of informality, he doesn’t put up much of a fight.
The significance of a gentleman’s formal evening dress — the full-fig affair, complete with starched shirt, shirt studs, bow tie, suspenders, garters, and cummerbund — would not be lost on Gurney’s audience. However depleted the family fortune, however redundant the old rituals, a man in a custom-tailored dinner jacket stands for something. And when that man is dressed in his father’s clothes, it signifies that the collective values of his social class, handed down over generations, still survive.
Although not verbalized, that’s all understood by Curtis (Gregg Edelman) when he conjures up the spirit of his late father (Daniel Davis) to help him write his toast to the wedding party. The threadbare hotel in the Adirondacks (designed by John Arnone) may not be the most attractive setting for a wedding, but Curtis will stand on ceremony and dress as if it were the Waldorf.
Helmer Mark Lamos (who’s been around the block more than once, and is currently a.d. of the Westport Country Playhouse) made a shrewd casting choice in Edelman. The voice may be familiar from Broadway musicals, but it’s the expressive face that registers here, as Curtis comes to the belated realization that tradition doesn’t count for much anymore.
As played by Davis with a toothy smile and a touch of a tan, Curtis’s dapper old man seems a bit theatrical for a well-bred gentleman of the old school. But he does his duty as a figment of his son’s imagination by dispensing advice and expressing his approval of Curtis’s decisions.
To dress or not to dress: that is the existential question facing Curtis once he learns that the willful bride and her bohemian friends have hijacked the rehearsal dinner and turned it into a far more casual affair. Whether ’tis nobler to dress the part and deliver his carefully composed toast, or ditch the tux, skip the toast, and yield the floor to an up-and-coming comic whose wedding gift is a full floor show.
Curtis’s wife, Mimi (Carolyn McCormick, adept at ironic line readings) may indulge her husband, but she’s happy to sacrifice the traditional rituals for an open seating plan at the banquet table and nude bathing in the swimming pool. Daughter Elsie (Elvy Yost) is an old hand at flouting convention, and son Teddy (Ari Brand) is in thrall to his bride.
With the whole wedding party and his own family lined up in opposition, Curtis doesn’t stand a chance of defending his old-fashioned traditions. And maybe it’s Gurney’s point that a true gentleman shows his good manners by capitulating to other people’s bad manners.But Curtis doesn’t really stand up as a figure of fun, not when he understands so well the value of ceremony: “because behind all that was a sense of civility.”