The universal situation of clashes between generations has been the basis of a lot of literature. Currently on stage at Clague Playhouse is a comedy that explores this dynamic in a very specific situation. “Black Tie” is a 90-minute excursion into a tension-filled battleground of the groom’s family on the day of the bridal dinner.
A.R. Gurney, a gifted writer of social comedies, has set this one in the Adirondacks at a mediocre resort hotel. Teddy and Mia are a contemporary couple who have specific ideas about the rehearsal dinner. The conflict is that Teddy’s father Curtis has different ideas. Curtis was strongly influenced by his father, but unfortunately, these values did not get passed to Teddy.
In the first scene Curtis, a brow-frowning Peter Toomey, is admiring how good he looks in his deceased father’s tuxedo. His deceased father suddenly pops through the mirror, like “Alice in Wonderland” in reverse. Played by Lou Will, he tells Curtis how to speak and how to drink at the dinner. The plans are in conflict with son Teddy, a bearded Bobby Coyne, but even more so with his future wife, Mia. Never seen, Mia is a major player in the story.
“Black Tie” is not one of Gurney’s better plays; but he’s so good at what he does that his flawed lesser efforts are better than most playwrights’ best. “Black Tie” is a modern-day comedy of manners, and it took the audience on the night I attended a long time to enter into the spirit of the comedy. A third of the play was “warmup” time with smiles and chuckles rather than the fully launched belly laughs that come later. Structurally, “Black Tie” is problematic because a lot of the show is characters talking about what other characters said or did. Drama is a “show me” art, and characters should talk and do rather than retell events. Indeed, the weakest character in the show is the groom’s sister Elsie. Debbie Lenarz is a fine performer, but her character is like a messenger in battle, breathlessly bringing back news from the battleground – which in this case is the dining room across the resort. To Gurney’s credit, his characters describe things well, and each audience member takes his own view of the unseen bride and the “surprise guest,” a Jewish stand-up comedian. It’s just a weakness that Lenarz does not have much to build on with her character.
In the Clague cast, Lou Will is wonderfully outraged as the Republican protestant grandfather. Peter Toomey is best after the audience is warmed up and he reacts with mounting distress over the rapidly deteriorating dinner at which he is the unseated host. Donna Case really soars with her mother Mimi character. Though “Black Tie” is a farce, Case roots her character in reality, and makes it work. From her role as mediator to her frustration with each mounting “reveal,” Case is fully believable, gulping down bottle after bottle of minibar alcohol.
Doug Farren’s direction keeps the action on the intimate Clague stage, but also makes it a pleasing picture to watch. Ron Newell’s set revives the tacky light wood paneling of the time and place of the action. “Black Tie” runs through Sunday at Clague Playhouse. Don’t be put off by the warning of “strong language.” The mostly-senior audience on the night I saw it had a great time. “Black Tie” is a play for everyone.