by A.R. Gurney
Fish on walls, bow-ties in place.
An entertaining comedy at Vienna’s English Theatre.
Curtis (Martyn Stanbridge) is happily unpacking his case in his suite in a resort hotel, somewhere in New York State’s Adirondack Mountains. Happy because his son is getting married which provides him with the perfect opportunity to don the venerable Tuxedo he inherited from his father. Dead? Far from it! No sooner has he settled in than the old patriarch’s ghost appears through the mirror (Gary Raymond); the ghost enquires as to whether Curtis has prepared a suitably solemn speech for the occasion; He also wishes to know where his grandson stands in matters of etiquette.
Black Tie is not merely the title of this generation comedy by J.R. Gurney, first performed in 2011; it is also the formal title given to the less informal evening dress, the tuxedo. Said garment acts as leitmotiv in this elegant play now showing at Vienna’s English Theatre and illustrates the conflict between maintaining old traditions and the uncertainties of modern life. Formal dress code versus ironic fashion-style.
The actors dominate this lightfooted production, the play’s European Premiere; their acting is lively, their comic timing excellent. There’s no place here for slapstick. The entire play with its five upper-class family members takes place in this hotel room, rustically furnished with plenty of wood, antlers and fish on the walls.
The production could, perhaps, have done with a modern perspective at this point, a breaking up of given, determining stage directions, all the more so as Gurney’s clever script thematises precisely such an opening-up in the face of changing times.
The senior members of this totally WASP family are sceptical of the younger generation‘s readiness to embrace new mores. What’s more, the wedding threatens to descend into total chaos with Croatian-born Maya; aided and abetted by her friend, a Jewish stand-up comedian.
Mother (Amanda Osborne) keeps her cool. Her other daughter, Elsie (Madeleine Knight) is in despair, having all her careful planning turned on its head. For totally different reasons, it’s all too much for the bridegroom, Teddie (Danny Mahoney). Finally, however, a happy ending for one and all is guaranteed.
Der Neue Merker
It appears to be an eternal truth that things are bound to go awry when it comes to weddings; inevitably, therefore, this truth provides excellent material for many a play. In his piece, “Black Tie”, which received its premiere only two years ago and is now having its European premiere in Vienna’s English Theatre, author A.R. Gurney proves the point; in the capable hands hands of this prolific writer of “well-made plays”, little can go wrong.
(…) The play leaves us with the dilemma: what do we owe the past, what the present? What do we lose of what is good in the old, if we give ourseves totally over to the Zeitgeist? Are we bound to adapt constantly to what is new? Despite the fleet-footed and witty boulevardesque dialogue, we take part, in the last resort, in an almost serious discussion about values. The author refuses to let us off the hook and we are forced to reflect a while, for he isn’t about to let on what he considers right. Curtis has to make bigger decisions about his son’s wedding than the matter of which suit he should wear.
A classic well-made play for which one could easily imagine a prominent cast: Gary Raymond, as the Ghost of Curtis’ father, even looks a bit like Sean Connery – now that would be perfect casting indeed. But it is ridiculous to reproach the actors at the English Theatre for not being the big stars that the play could do with so as to shine really brightly. On the contrary, they all do an excellent job: Martyn Stanbridge as the dithering Curtis and Amanda Osborne as his wife – with these two, the author pulls out all the satirical stops at his disposal to ridicule the “Damned Liberals”, the WASPs who consider everything just great for mortal fear of being politically incorrect, even a Black – Vietnamese – Peruvian daughter-in-law! Also excellent are Madeleine Knight as the daughter who brings bad news and Danny Mahoney as the son on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
The play, directed by Brooke Ciardelli in a highly atmospheric, wooden-rustic stage set by Sue Mayes, is absolutely to the taste of an audience that often laughs knowingly.
Black Tie at the English Theatre in Vienna
A. R. Gurney’s comedy Black Tie offers a perfect blend of humour, wittiness and political edginess which belongs to the well-acclaimed playwright only.
Curtis is getting ready and finalising details for his son Teddy’s rehearsal dinner when the ghost of his father appears in the hotel suite. Curtis asks his father, who himself had always been the perfect host, for advice on putting together a good sending-off party for his son.
Curtis’ father gladly accepts – only to realise there are generation gaps that he will simply have to come to terms with. Parents, sons, daughters, grandfathers and grandchildren are all woven into debates about culture, norms and even language through the generations which is both entertaining and thought-provoking for the spectator.
The highly-experienced cast performed brilliantly at the premiere, truly bringing a bit of America to a multi-national and delightfully receptive audience in Vienna.
The English Theatre, built in 1905 and itself a stunning example of Austrian Neo-Baroque architecture, is an excellent choice for this play. Indeed, the auditorium gives an atmosphere which is purely classic, yet effortlessly timeless making the location inter-generational per se.
Black Tie is playing at Vienna’s English Theatre in the Josefstadt district until April, 27th. Performances begin at 1930 daily except Sundays.