With Black Tie at Primary Stages, the prolific A. R. Gurney returns aggressively (well, passive-aggressively, in a way) to the subject matter that fueled the plays on which his initial renown was founded: the examination of the Connecticut bred, rich WASP culture from which he arose, and the treatment of the breed as if it's an ethnic group. Scientifically speaking, it is, of course, and certainly WASPs of that stripe have long standing and idiosyncratic customs, beliefs, traditions and behaviors—but in this play, I believe not entirely with fully conscious intention, Gurney is mounting both an apology and a defense for what is oft-perceived as its conservative stuffiness.
It takes place in a resort motel room occupied by two middle aged parents on the eve of their grown son's wedding. But clearly the captain of the ship is husband Curtis (Gregg Edelman), trying to keep temper, temperament and composure in the wake of one break in tradition after another. All things considered, he's a fairly even-handed fellow to begin with, yet he still finds solace and inspiration in the example and advice of his own father—that is, the ghost of his father (Daniel Davis). A central issue is whether or not Curtis will dress formally for the occasion, which his daughter (Elvy Yost), son (Ari Brand) and future daughter-in-law (offstage) consider informal.
At first, there seems to be the hint of deep trouble, what with wife Mimi (Carolyn McCormick) making the accusation that she hears Curtis’s father in everything he's saying; and what the play seems to be therefore promising is a story about a guy who either learns to let go of his father's influence or is somehow "doomed" (in lite comedy-drama terms) because he can't. But neither turns out to be the case; there's a point at which you realize that Dad is a force for good, and that what's being illustrated is the importance of maintaining WASP tradition from generation to generation, balanced with the need to adjust it to the times.
This not only renders the play mild—which in this case is not damning, “mild” is a perfectly okay thing for a genteel comedy about preserving gentility to be—but it also renders it just a slight bit bewildering. Oh its narrative is eminently followable, but to what end, if the central character is emotionally resolved when we meet him? As a traditional storytelling trope, ghosts have traditions too, and they hang around for one of two reasons...to benignly resolve an issue that remained unsolved at their death (for themselves or someone left behind); or to cause mischief, generally in the service of revenge.
But the Ghost of Dad here neither wants nor needs any of those. He's content to advise his son as he did in life. And Sonny is happy to accept the wisdom. Which begs the question of what kind of universe we're in; did Sonny ever mourn his father's death meaningfully if their relationship just continued? And the play gives several indications that Ghost Dad is not merely a manifestation of his son’s psyche, but a genuine visitor from the Other Side. (No, he doesn’t move stuff around; he’s probably too polite for that.) And Gurney likewise plays fast and loose with the operational rules of his universe: the convention that none but Curtis can see or hear the ghost is tried and true; but how is it that when Curtis talks to the ghost in front of others that no one hears what Curtis says?
Black Tie is a perfectly pleasant, wholly professional comedy, acted well and served up with WASP-worthy smoothness under the direction of Mark Lamos, and its run at 59E59 Theatres has even been extended…It just never quite convinces you that there’s a good reason to get dressed up for it.