02/28/2011 05:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

First Nighter: A. R. Gurney's Black Tie Diverts as it Disappoints

Remove the "r," "n" and "y" from playwright A. R. Gurney's name and what's left is "argue"--perhaps a reviewer's excessively roundabout way to assert that trenchant argument is consistently, perhaps even compulsively, what audiences don't get much of in most of the notably prolific dramatist's works.

You could say that Gurney is our preeminent stage reporter on the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, or WASP, experience. Habitually, reporting is what he's inclined to do. He's happy to present, not to say lavishly generous at presenting, WASPs in the act of executing life's familiar rituals.

His latest play, Black Tie, is an example of how far (but no farther) he's willing to go in the continuing examination of his background. The intermissionless 90-minute work is on the largest 59E59 stage under the auspices of Primary Stages, one of three producing outfits (Lincoln Center and the Flea are the others) eager to mount just about anything the man, who has to be at his computer 24/7, sends their way.

In this superficially entertaining piece, Curtis (the adept Gregg Edelman) is discovered in a one-notch-above-tacky hotel room designed with appropriately questionable taste by John Arnone. He's shrugging himself into a tuxedo so he can be properly attired, as he sees it, for his son's impending wedding. Well, no, it's not a tuxedo he's donning but "evening clothes" -- as he's instructed by his late father (suave, declamatory Daniel Davis), who magically appears on the other side of an upstage mirror and then just as brazenly pops around from it.

Curtis' Father, as he's identified in the program, then proceeds -- because Curtis has been wishing he could have access to dad's advice on such an important occasion -- to inundate his son with de rigeur dictates from an earlier era. This goes on until Curtis's wife Mimi (immensely likable Carolyn McCormick) returns to the suffocating suite to chide her husband for behaving too much like his stuffy pater during the couple of weeks leading up to the nuptial.

From then on in the opus, the strictures of tradition are mooted not only by the persistently hanging about father, by Curtis (who can't seem to shuck the supposedly proper past) and by Mimi (who can) but also by their daughter Elsie (Elvy Yost in a promising debut) and eventually their son and the groom, Teddy (the sensitive yet tough Ari Brand). It's Teddy who -- having had a last-minute flare-up with his (unseen mixed-blood) bride-to-be Maya -- relays the information that his miffed intended considers his life has been controlled by Curtis and Mimi. This would be, of course, Gurney's ironic apercu that each new generation is faced with throwing off the harnesses put on them by the preceding generation.

(Incidentally, if anyone reading this hears a faint echo in the break-down of tradition when fathers marry off children, they're listening to strains from Fiddler on the Roof. It could be said Gurney's play is a WASP retread of the internationally acclaimed musical. Furthermore, Neil Simon deals with the sitcom-ish subject matter in the third of his disparate Plaza Suite acts.)

There's no denying that as Curtis et al go about their frustrated antics, Gurney succeeds at providing genuine humor. Abundant laughs arise from the conflict(s), and they're not just gags superimposed on the characters. They're psychologically motivated. Eventually, they're moving as well, especially when Teddy arrives suddenly uncertain whether he wants to go through with marriage to a woman so upset about his "snooty" family. Ghostly Dad urges Curtis to give Teddy "the love test" (which won't be outlined here) as an indication of Teddy's devotion. It's administered with results that satisfy all as they ultimately accommodate themselves to changing times.

So far, so good. Indeed, for many it'll be so far, so sufficient. Yet, in this portrait of WASP behavior, Gurney introduces an element that remains resolutely unprobed -- the relationship between the returned father and Curtis. It's painfully obvious that Curtis has been ruled by this confident parent -- and made even more obvious when Mimi runs down in chapter and verse how overbearing she found her deceased father-in-law. At some point, Curtis must have chafed under his elder's inflexible commandments. (Perhaps Gurney intends to have the father represent the entire binding WASP social code.) As Gurney writes the guy, however, and as Edelman plays him under Mark Lamos's otherwise silken direction, Curtis merely smiles with eventually annoying docility.

Curtis's unspoken refusal to speak up to his dad in any other than a bemused manner seems like a sad failing. The lack of what looks to be shaping up as inevitable dramatic confrontation is, furthermore, typical of Gurney. Perhaps his point is just that: WASPs don't rock the stately boat, and by not rocking the dramaturgical boat, the author is simply doing the WASP thing as a literary correlative. But if so, shouldn't he make that explicit by having Curtis prodded to a flare-up that he outrightly refuses to express? Leaving the agreeable man grinning and bearing it comes across as unfortunate reluctance on Gurney's part, reluctance to go deeper into experiences he strongly hints are more destructive than what they seem at first.

In the long run, it means that Gurney as playwright will always amuse but never contuse and thereby consign himself to the status of a minor, though reliable, contributor to theater diversions.

Subscribe to the Entertainment email.
Home to your favorite fan theories and the best movie recs.