On the surface, the conflicts in A.R. Gurney's 2011 off-Broadway comedy "Black Tie" can feel slight. But "Black Tie," now playing in its Chicago-area debut at Steel Beam in St. Charles, gradually takes on larger and more universal themes of tradition versus change that should resonate with anyone beyond the play's privileged East Coast family.
The main conflict initially appears to be about a wealthy Boston patriarch named Curtis (Jay Cook), who insists on wearing his late father's tailored tuxedo to deliver a speech for his son's wedding rehearsal dinner -- despite complaints from his wife, Mimi (Dana Teichart), and his grown daughter, Elsie (Cynthia Fortune Gruel), that he'll come off as too old-fashioned and look like a waiter.
"Black Tie"★ ★ ½
Location: Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main St., St. Charles, (630) 587-8521, steelbeamtheatre.com.
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; through June 2
Tickets: $25; $23 seniors and students
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Parking: Street parking and nearby parking garage
Rating: Some profanity; for mature audiences
But Curtis' traditional plans for the rehearsal dinner soon spiral out of control as Elsie continually delivers news about last-minute changes being made by bridesmaids and the demanding unseen bride, Maya. The groom Teddy (Luke Donia) finally seeks help from his parents after a particularly nasty fight with his fiancee.
"Black Tie" also has a supernatural element with Curtis having private conversations with the ghost of his eminently proper and well-connected late father (Richard Westphal). Curtis' unnamed father is appalled by his grandson's destination wedding at a tacky resort hotel near Lake George in New York's Adirondack Mountains, and the general slide in standards of etiquette and traditions for important occasions.
Written by Gurney at the age of 80, "Black Tie" is a slightly forlorn examination of members of an aging generation feeling outpaced by drastic changes in society while being forced to confront the reality that they -- and their views -- are now considered decidedly old guard.
Yet, director Terry Domschke and his cast don't always live up to the demands of Gurney's material. There is no real sense of the cast embodying sophisticated East Coast personas -- save for Westphal's wry and distinguished turn as the tuxedoed ghost. And there is a lack of urgency to the proceedings.
Cook is far too even-keeled as Curtis, who is footing the bill for the ever-changing dinner. Cook really should be showing bigger flashes of anger, aggravation and befuddlement.
As Mimi, Teichart is also too nice. The necessary passive-aggressive acidity toward Mimi's husband and lingering resentments toward her late father-in-law stay largely under the surface of Teichart's performance.
Gruel is just fine as the eye-rolling Elsie who objects to her role as the perpetual "messenger of bad news," while Donia as Teddy doesn't appear like he'll be able to hold his own against the beautiful and temperamental descriptions of Maya.
The dramatic stakes aren't life or death, but Gurney's play makes smart arguments on both sides for cherishing long-standing traditions for formal occasions and also being flexible to suit the times. And though the forces of Steel Beam make a good stab at the material, their efforts don't live up to the subtle and distinctive demands of "Black Tie."