What’s in a name? In programs for his earliest productions, the playwright A.R. Gurney was billed as “A.R. Gurney, Jr.” Once he had established himself, the “Jr.” was dropped. His friends have always known him by the nickname “Pete,” and nowadays, in his mellow later years, he lists himself in program bios as “A.R. (‘Pete’) Gurney.”
This nomenclatural evolution mirrors the themes to which Gurney, a fluent and prolific craftsman who still manages to have several new scripts produced each year, constantly reverts: conflict between the generations; the supplanting of traditional refinement by modern brashness; the waning of the white Protestant elite’s sociopolitical dominance. He views them all through the lens of his hometown, Buffalo, New York, the once-elegant and prosperous city that is now a Rust Belt remnant struggling to survive. Gurney plays with no links to Buffalo are few; those with no confrontation of the high-class past with the no-class present are outright rarities.
Black Tie (Primary Stages), the latest handcrafted object to emerge from Gurney’s workshop, demonstrates the way his finesse as a craftsman rescues his repeated treks over this familiar terrain from seeming identical. A Buffalo-born ad exec (Gregg Edelman) finds himself with his wife (Carolyn McCormick) at a rundown Adirondacks resort hotel, dressing, the night before his son’s wedding, for dinner with the bridal party. From the utterly trivial issue of whether or not he should wear his tux for this occasion, and the even more trivial one of whether it should be called the “rehearsal dinner” or the “bridal dinner,” Gurney spins a diverting, ruefully amiable tapestry of marital modes and mores then and now, with neatly spaced intrusions by the couple’s son (Ari Brand), daughter (Elvy Yost), and, most frequently, the ghost of the tux’s previous owner, that pillar of Buffalo society, the hero’s dad (Daniel Davis).
Gurney’s sociological memory is too elastic: His hero’s conflicted impulses reflect his own generation, not the 1960s kids now facing midlife crisis. Still, his acute sense of comic disparity never plays him false, making the brief, breezy evening suggest a clash between Emily Post and Dan Savage: What kind of toast should the groom’s father propose if the biracial bride’s ex-husband, a gay stand-up comic, is also planning to speak? Director Mark Lamos’s cast seizes the bittersweet silliness with zest, Davis in particular having a grandiloquent field day.