Saturday, February 12, 2011

Reliably Funny


The cast of Black Tie (photo by James Leynse)

Black Tie
Written by A.R. Gurney
Directed by Mark Lamos
Starring Ari Brand, Daniel Davis, Gregg Edelman, Carolyn McCormick, Elvy Yost

Performances through March 20, 2011

Primary Stages at 59 E 59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street

The ultra-prolific A. R. Gurney, who recently turned 80, has another new play at Primary Stages, where one of his best works, Indian Blood, was presented a few seasons back. Even for a playwright with his share of lighter-than-air trifles, Black Tie is among his slightest. I’m not denigrating it: Gurney is a pro, and his humorous if not gut-busting patter includes reliable jabs at WASPs and Jews and conservatives and liberals.

Here’s the set-up: groom-to-be’s dad Curtis sits in his room at the tacky Adirondacks hotel hosting his son’s rehearsal dinner that night and wedding ceremony the next day, pondering the all-important toast. His father’s benevolent ghost appears to give him pointers on etiquette and polishing his public-speaking skills while bemoaning today’s loss of civility.

During Curtis and his dad’s discussions, the rest of the family appears: Curtis’s wife Mimi, still loving but tiring of her husband’s pronounced similarity to his dad‘s old-fashioned ways; their daughter Elsie, living happily with her boyfriend Ralph but unhappy to keep appearing to tell her parents that things are not going as planned downstairs in the hotel’s Ticonderoga Room; and their son Teddy, who announces that he and his bride-to-be have just fought over his “snotty” parents and how they denigrate her less-than-WASPish family.

This material, which is right in Gurney’s wheelhouse, consistently scores with funny lines about upstate New York and sly observations about the good old days vs. today’s rotten ones. Admittedly, Gurney could come up with some of this stuff in his sleep, but he has undeniably hit a nerve lamenting how social standards have deteriorated and how civilized people today would have been thought barbarians a generation ago. Sadly, Gurney is stuck preaching to the choir, as those who’d benefit from having their eyes opened about civility would never attend a play.

Mark Lamos has directed spiffily on John Arnone’s agreeably gaudy set, and the cast bats around Gurney’s choicest bon mots most effectively. Best of the lot is Daniel Davis, who gives Curtis’s unnamed father an amusingly haughty manner but never reduces him to a caricature. Whether or not the part has autobiographical overtones for its creator, Davis has done Gurney proud with his richly comic performance.

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