The older you are and the greater the number of hours you spend longing for “the old ways,” the more you’ll be inclined to nod in agreement every time an opinion is stated by the propriety-focused, etiquette-obsessed patriarch in A.R. Gurney’s “Black Tie.”
Not that viewers under the age of, say, 40 won’t appreciate the emphasis on gentility in the play, which opened last weekend at Little Lake Theatre. But relate to it? That’s another matter entirely.
A true comedy of manners, “Black Tie” takes place on the eve of a middle-class wedding, just prior to the sort of rehearsal dinner people of all ages have attended, and rather quickly you begin to read Gurney’s mind and know he’s thinking that one marriage ceremony is no different from any other. Only the names and faces change.
Of course, a wedding would be incomplete without a gatekeeper of what’s correct and what absolutely will not do according to the rules of good taste at such an occasion, and in Gurney’s play, it’s the grandfather of the groom who assumes that particular role.
He’s well-suited to it, as evidenced by his disdain for the mere concept of a rehearsal dinner – and one held in the banquet room of an Adirondacks hotel, no less. Simply the lift of a disapproving eyebrow carries more weight than if he were to actually declare, “Why, in my day, no one with any respect for decorum would have permitted this arrangement!”
I’m not letting too large a cat out of the bag by reporting that the grandfather’s appearance comes as a surprise to his middle-aged son, the father of the groom, since the old gentleman died several years ago. He’s present “in spirit,” as they say, like Hamlet’s father, but without the forewarnings of doom.
The grandfather arrived to console, to advise, to critically wag his finger, to remind his son of minutiae, such as saying “dinner jacket” conveys more sophistication than referring to the wearing of a common-sounding tuxedo. He represents the society that once was, the era we saw drift away to make room for a way of life that embraces casual modernity and bent traditions.
Only Gurney would have the cleverness to take an everyday wedding, fiction’s most popular occasion, and use it to tell a story about fathers and sons, leaving the bride and her family – usually the central figures – as unseen characters.
It’s this slight novelty that helps the play, under insightful direction by Carol Lauck, coast along pleasantly at Little Lake Theatre.
The actors make invaluable contributions, too, in particular Paul Laughlin and Bruce Crocker, who strike up a comfortable rapport as the visitor/ghost and the agitated father of the groom. They should. A suggestion that the two men are alike is imperative, after all, what with the younger one, Curtis, hearing lately that he’s inherited some of this father’s traits, whether he likes it or not.
Laughlin and Crocker aren’t alone. Tracey Taylor Perles gives a wonderfully snarky performance as Curtis’ wife, and good support comes from T.J. Firneno as the groom and Jenny Malarkey as his sister.
In other words, a small cast does what it needs to do: Brings familial truth to what is, in the nicest sense, a small play.
What: “Black Tie”
Where: Little Lake Theatre
When: Through Nov. 24
Rating: Three stars (out of four)