When I’m conflicted about a play, I give it the “Passover Question” test. That question, for those of you who might be less than Judaically inclined, is “Why is this night different from all other nights?” When I see a show, I want to know why it’s important for me to be here, in a theater, with these characters, hearing this story. I want to know how and why their lives have changed at the end of the evening. I want it, somehow, to count; I want to feel as if I’ve witnessed something significant in the existence of these people whom I’ve just gotten to know.
A.R. Gurney’s “Black Tie,” playing at Off-Broadstreet Theater through Saturday, September 29, fails this question. It’s a well-directed and acted production of a script that’s full of little charming moments but doesn’t, at any real point, thread itself together to raise the stakes, tell a compelling story, fill you with raucous laughter, or ask enticing questions that linger on into post-show conversations and drinks with your date.
Gurney is famous for examining the plights of the WASP-humorous and otherwise-in plays like “Sylvia,” and his most recent full length (presented without an intermission, at a breezy 90 minutes) is yet another installment in this series of continued musings. Curtis and Mimi are upper-middle-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, holed up in the Adirondacks for the weekend for the wedding of their son, Teddy. Their daughter Elsie aids and abets the pair’s efforts to prepare the rehearsal dinner, and Curtis’ dead father pays a series of visits for some last minute ghostly parental advice. It’s presented as one big scene in Curtis and Mimi’s suite right before the rehearsal dinner, and, on paper alone, it’s got all the makings of a cute and spritely family comedy. The thing is, there are writers who have done this better elsewhere, notably on this very stage –– Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound,” presented last season, is a sterling example. If the message is “family makes us nuts, and family makes us sane,” that’s a palatable statement, to be sure, but it’s handled with more than a little clumsy writing here.
Amidst the not-quite-timely jokes about Obama and interracial marriage, we learn that Mimi is a hardline liberal and Curtis a firm conservative –– with his ghostly dad even a step or two beyond that, as “father” balks at the idea of the bride’s African-American and Vietnamese heritage. And that’s sort of the overarching theme here of why this script, as a whole, doesn’t really work –– you’re watching a family talk about a reception and a wedding ahead of them, but it’s like viewing a room full of people as they watch “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” The events they are anticipating and talking about outside the room in which the play is set are far more interesting than what we’re actually seeing. It’s like a book report about a really good wedding. I just want to go to the wedding, please, cake and all. The good news is that, thanks to OBT’s excellent dessert service, you do, in fact, get a piece of that cake anyway.
There are little blips of delight here and there, mostly because the cast is fantastic. Bob and Julie Thick of OBT have wisely selected Barry Abramowitz as one of the theater’s MVPs, and he’s stellar here as he is in every production. He takes an underwritten and ham-fisted role and makes the most of it, with a graceful, indecisive charm about the appropriate level of informality at this wedding that’s one part “Dirty Dancing” and a little bit of The Birdcage (again, I WANT A PLAY ABOUT THIS WEDDING, not the conversations before the wedding!!!!). Susan Fowler’s Mimi is warm and gentle, bemused against her husband’s befuddled response. George Agalias’ Father is an odd choice of writing on Gurney’s part, because the potential present in a spectral father figure largely goes unfulfilled. Agalias tries admirably, though, to provide the role with sensitivity and weight. Haley Bradstreet as daughter Laurie is a nice open-minded foil to her father’s sterner antics, and Austin Begley, as groom Teddy, does a solid job in a part that’s pretty much built as a catalyst around which other people talk.
I genuinely like these actors and have no small amount of affection for this theater, and I’ve loved performances from each and every one of these five at other times on this same stage. And you can’t deny that they’ve got chemistry with one another; the problem, I’m afraid, comes back to the script, again and again. The whole package is overly familiar, and while I applaud OBT on tackling new work by one of America’s most prominent living playwrights, I look forward to this excellent ensemble embracing more successful scripts in the near future.
— Jonathan Elliott
Black Tie, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Saturday, September 29. $29.50 to $31.50. www.off-broadstreet.com or 609-466-2766.