Black Tie at the English Theatre: This clash of generations thrives on one-liners

In a kitschy lodge in upstate New York, a family prepares for a wedding that screams impending disaster at every turn.

On The Town | Brooke Morriswood | April 2013

A dyed-in-the-wool Republican returns from the grave to help his son through his rehearsal dinner. "Show me a bride that doesn’t blush," the old man says, "and I’ll show you a Democrat that doesn’t spend money."

It’s one of many good one-liners in A.R. Gurney’s new clash-of-generations comedy, now playing at Vienna’s English Theatre. Let me admit at the onset that this review is based on a preview and not the first night. Many of the wrinkles may have been ironed out by then.

The action takes place within a single suite in a kitschy resort hotel in upstate New York, on the shore of Lake George. The interior is a slightly tasteless evocation of a hunting lodge, with mounted fish gazing down from the walls and a large set of stag horns projecting over the stone fireplace. Curtains in Native American patterns frame the adjacent window, while at stage right are doors to the bathroom and out into the corridor.

At the outset, we find Curtis – a genial, middle-class baby-boomer – changing into black tie as he prepares to give an address for his son’s wedding. And he’s got help. His deceased father, the newly un-dead embodiment of White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, appears in the mirror to offer advice on the content of the speech and his conduct for the evening. While Curtis is pleased to get the assistance, it’s clear that his determinedly progressive wife Mimi doesn’t approve of this departure into old-fashioned gentility.

It transpires that the wedding is a far more modern undertaking than either Curtis or his father can easily fathom. Curtis and Mimi’s daughter Elsie interrupts the first half with tales of unplanned alterations to the schedule, while the groom-to-be (Teddy) barges in to confess to having second thoughts about the wedding itself.

So far so good, then. Inevitably, many of the cultural references don’t quite resonate on this side of the pond, whether used for comic or dramatic effect – for example, the script assumes that WASPS and Jews not getting along is inherently funny, while the Lake George setting itself (formerly a playground of the rich and now a tourist attraction) doesn’t carry the same nuance as its 2011 premiere in New York. But there’s something universal about families worrying over weddings, and by letting the cast span three generations everyone in the audience has someone to relate to.

That’s not to say the script is without its faults. There’s a clunkiness to some of the dialogue that makes some interactions – particularly between Curtis and his father, and Curtis and Mimi – stagey and unnatural. Curtis’ father’s entrances and exits are contrived to the point of complacency, frequently feeling forced. In fact the father’s sudden appearance at the opening – given that this is the plot device around which the clash of generations revolves – is far too casual. Instead of being an unprecedented contact from beyond the grave, Father and son give the impression that they chat on a daily basis. Surely it should be the special nature of the impending wedding that provokes this special visitation?

Whatever the circumstances, Curtis’ father certainly comes equipped with a ready supply of witty remarks. Immaculately clad in his own black tie, he stalks the stage with arms stiff by his sides and hands clawing primly, dispensing his accumulated wisdom in a series of pithy aphorisms. He speaks almost entirely in one-liners, but they’re generally good enough to pass muster and serve to illustrate his apparently ossified and inflexible character. Gary Raymond is well-equipped both physically and vocally for the part, his plangent tones memorialising a bygone era of good manners. It’s a bit like watching Christopher Lee impersonate Abraham Lincoln.

For all the father’s efforts, the first half only briefly roars to life when Elsie (Madeleine Knight) bursts onstage to relate the growing anarchy downstairs. Brimming with vigour and energy, her intrusion gives the action a welcome shot of adrenalin and brings things firmly back into the present. But it’s the second half, when Teddy (Danny Mahoney) comes to confess his frustrations and doubts, that the play really hits its stride. As with Elsie’s visits, his eruption fuels the pace and from then on the laughs – and insights – flow readily.

It’s also at this moment that the script finally begins to tackle its racial, cultural and generational material head on. And it’s far, far funnier as a result. Perhaps I’m betraying my age, but the intergenerational conflicts also seem to work better when it’s Teddy (or Elsie) versus their parents, instead of the parents versus Curtis’ father. Mahoney’s glassy-eyed horror as he contemplates his nuptials and possible impending public humiliation is worth the price of the ticket all on its own.

But I’ll admit that I found Curtis hard to identify with, even though he was the emotional centre of the piece. When the centre shifted to Teddy, I was suddenly more engaged. But then, I’m a young guy with no grown-up children (or grandchildren for that matter).

My advice? Go see it, and then find someone in the audience whose age is as far apart from yours as possible and ask them what they enjoyed. It could be Gurney’s Black Tie serves to link the generations, even as the attire itself is emblematic of the disconnect between them.

You decide.

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