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Black Tie

A.R. Gurney's latest exploration of WASP culture proves to be a beguiling experience.

Daniel Davis and Gregg Edelman in Black Tie
(© James Leynse)
While detailing the confusion that surrounds the rehearsal dinner for a young couple's wedding in Black Tie, now being presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters, prolific playwright A.R. Gurney revisits a favorite subject: the obsolescence of the social mores and traditions of upper middle class East Coast WASPs. At the same time, the playwright explores the various social and psychological legacies that fathers bestow on their sons.

As directed with efficiency by Mark Lamos, Black Tie is never really any more filling than one of the hors d'oeuvres that might be passed during cocktails at the offstage party, but even so, it proves to be a beguiling theatrical experience.

At the center of the play are a pair of top-drawer performances from Gregg Edelman, playing Curtis, the father of the groom, and from Daniel Davis, who plays Curtis' deceased father. Curtis is worried that the dinner, being thrown at a rustic hotel in the Adirondacks (the living room of the suite in which the play unfolds has been designed with a terrific eye for detail by John Arnone), might not be as good as one that his dad would have presided over, so Curtis has conjured the man in his mind to ask some advice. Dad comes along with a great deal of appropriate information -- as well as a host of old school baggage and its attendant disapproval of more contemporary customs.

As the play progresses, complications arise: not only is there the arrival of an unexpected (and never-seen) guest who threatens to steal Curtis' thunder, but the groom, Teddy (an amiable turn from Ari Brand), begins to rethink everything from his wedding attire to whether he loves the bride (also unseen) and wants to go through with the nuptials. At practically every step, Curtis is forced to reconsider some of the things that he's taken for granted in the preparations for the evening.

Additionally, the increasing strife around the entire event -- much of which is reported by Curtis' daughter Elsie (Elvy Yost) -- reveals some of the delicate fractures that exist in his marriage to Mimi (Carolyn McCormick), a woman who manages to straddle both the worlds of old traditions and new. To her credit, McCormick makes Mimi's bifurcated nature seem entirely plausible, even as she evinces the all-too real love that exists alongside her dissatisfaction in her relationship with Curtis.

Edelman is superb as he navigates the tricky course of bringing Curtis' fussbudgety ways to life. He infuses each little demand for things to be done his way (i.e. the way his father would have done it) with such sweetness and goofy cluelessness that the character never becomes gratingly overbearing or obnoxious. Combining punctiliousness, pomposity and genuine warmth to exquisite effect, Davis deftly plays the man who frowns on the use of the word "tuxedo" and insists that using a quote from Lord Byron is the way to go in making a toast.

There's real truth in much of what Gurney brings to the stage in this increasingly farcical play, and yet, one can't help wish there were some fresh insight to be had alongside it. Ultimately, though, it's difficult to take exception to it or the briskly staged production, simply because laughs -- and warmth -- are served up so genially, almost as if by a good host similar to the one that Curtis hopes to be.