Jane Austen famously wrote to a nephew that she etched her novels on a piece of ivory two inches wide. Playwright A.R. Gurney, whose comedies of manners may come closest to recreating the milieu and arch style of the great Regency novelist, has chosen a piece of silk about four inches across as the metaphor for his latest exploration into the world of WASP privilege.
As the title implies, Black Tie centers around the iconic bow tie that forms an integral part of a man’s formalwear. Like Austen, Gurney uses his characters and situations to limn the changing world of the upper middle class. Unfortunately, he may have gone to this well one too many times, because this time, the bucket comes up as dry as the endless aphorisms spouted by the ghost father of the bride.
Although there’s no explanation of why this ghost keeps appearing to Curtis, after a while, we get some idea of how profound an influence the effete ideas of the deceased continues to exert on his son. Curtis’ dilemma is whether to wear a tuxedo, a term disdained by Dad.
Actually, there’s very little of the world much past the Edwardian Age that pleases this geezer ghost. He’s the kind of person who would cringe at someone licking a finger to turn a page. Although the guy seems to have lived (or at least worked) in New York City not that long ago, it’s difficult to imagine him having to endure the vulgarities assaulting him riding a subway or even walking down a city street.
This character, who spouts so many cutesy aphorisms he’s like a walking Bartlett’s Quotations, is a type familiar to anyone who’s seen All About Eve or Laura. It’s necessary here to note that, looking back at those prototypes, although they were nominally interested in women, they seem obviously gay.
So, too, dear old Dad, in his prissy paternalism to all things involving style, etiquette or fine living (cocktails, clothes, dinner service) comes off as ... well, gay. The fact that he’s being played by Daniel Davis only reinforces the impression. Davis is pretty wonderful; he does as good a job as anyone could of pulling off these tiresome and oppressive bon mots -- even if the role is a reprise of Niles, the butler he embodied in the TV series The Nanny.
The black tie dilemma, which takes on world historical importance in the eyes of Curtis and his family, stands as a metaphor for the changing world that is challenging Curtis -- and that apalls his dead father. Unfortunately, this material was old when Philip Barry wrote Holiday in 1928.