Jane Austen famously wrote to a nephew that she etched her novels on a piece of ivory two inches wide. Playwright A.R. Gurney, whose comedies of manners may come closest to recreating the milieu and arch style of the great Regency novelist, has chosen a piece of silk about four inches across as the metaphor for his latest exploration into the world of WASP privilege.
As the title implies, Black Tie centers around the iconic bow tie that forms an integral part of a man’s formalwear. Like Austen, Gurney uses his characters and situations to limn the changing world of the upper middle class. Unfortunately, he may have gone to this well one too many times, because this time, the bucket comes up as dry as the endless aphorisms spouted by the ghost father of the bride.
Although there’s no explanation of why this ghost keeps appearing to Curtis, after a while, we get some idea of how profound an influence the effete ideas of the deceased continues to exert on his son. Curtis’ dilemma is whether to wear a tuxedo, a term disdained by Dad.
Actually, there’s very little of the world much past the Edwardian Age that pleases this geezer ghost. He’s the kind of person who would cringe at someone licking a finger to turn a page. Although the guy seems to have lived (or at least worked) in New York City not that long ago, it’s difficult to imagine him having to endure the vulgarities assaulting him riding a subway or even walking down a city street.
This character, who spouts so many cutesy aphorisms he’s like a walking Bartlett’s Quotations, is a type familiar to anyone who’s seen All About Eve or Laura. It’s necessary here to note that, looking back at those prototypes, although they were nominally interested in women, they seem obviously gay.
So, too, dear old Dad, in his prissy paternalism to all things involving style, etiquette or fine living (cocktails, clothes, dinner service) comes off as ... well, gay. The fact that he’s being played by Daniel Davis only reinforces the impression. Davis is pretty wonderful; he does as good a job as anyone could of pulling off these tiresome and oppressive bon mots -- even if the role is a reprise of Niles, the butler he embodied in the TV series The Nanny.
The black tie dilemma, which takes on world historical importance in the eyes of Curtis and his family, stands as a metaphor for the changing world that is challenging Curtis -- and that apalls his dead father. Unfortunately, this material was old when Philip Barry wrote Holiday in 1928.
The whole play, in fact, has a creaky, anachronistic quality, a too-close resemblance to plays like The Admirable Crighton or The New York Idea. Gurney has made his reputation with this theme, but the scope of these characters and the situation is simply too limited.
This is the kind of play where a character can deliver the line "I like Jews" without any irony; or where the mention that the bride-to-be’s former partner is Jewish and gay and -- the horror! -- a stand-up comedian is meant to elicit titters. There’s also a lot of mileage gotten out of the ancestry of the bride, a mutt (as our president himself put it). It doesn’t help that, in such a self-consciously un-ethnic environment, the son is played by a very Jewish-looking young actor, Ari Brand.
There are several groaners in this script, not to mention ellipses. We never get a hint of what Curtis, his wife, his son or even his dad do (or did) for a living. We do know the bride has studied film -- shorthand in this world for the ultimate dillettante. There are also weird allusions, such as Curtis mentioning that his wife’s work took her into the "inner city," a description foreign to New York.
As Curtis, the ever-reliable Gregg Edelman does what he can with a role in which he never leaves the stage but remains a cipher. Curtis is meant to change during the course of the action, but we never get a sense of his personality.
His wife is even more underwritten, a sitcom spouse whose purpose is to crack wise about Curtis’ relationship with his father and offer wisdom to their confused son.
Their other child, daughter Elsie, pops in and out of the Upstate hotel room where Curtis goes through his sartorial crisis offering a Greek chorus-type description of what’s going offstage.
The whole thing comes off as contrived and rather silly. Even at a a crisp 90 minutes (no intermission), the play felt overlong. While Davis is certainly entertaining, his performance is not enough to carry the load of a play that’s too lightweight. Watch the film version of Holiday, and you’ll get the drift -- with crisp dialogue delivered by Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, no less.
59 E. 59th St.
Produced by Primary Stages
Through March 20.