Tom Dudzick’s Over the Tavern has seen a lot of productions since its first stage outing back in the mid-1990s. Olney Theatre Center’s new production looks good and feels authentic. But unfortunately, that’s as close as Sunday’s formal opening performance was able to get to the play’s dramatic core.
Tavern is dubbed a “dramedy” in Olney’s program notes, and the description seems entirely apt. Experiencing Dudzick’s play is like viewing one of those warm, wise 1950s or 1960s sitcoms—but without encountering much warmth or wisdom. There are funny moments, serious moments, and even moments that border on tragedy in this play. But things never really quite came together for the cast this Sunday past.
Based loosely on the playwright’s early life and times growing up in Buffalo, New York in the 1950s, Over the Tavern is literally what it says it is. It’s a slice of 1959 life focusing on the Pazinskys, a struggling working-class family that’s crammed too close together in a small apartment perched above the neighborhood saloon where Dad tries to eke out a living.
James Wolk’s sets for this production are phenomenally good, down to nearly the last detail. The main part of the set includes the Pazinskys’ shopworn yet functional apartment, down to the last detail, including the grungy, metal kitchen cabinets, the steel kitchen table and chairs, the lumpy living room, and a boy’s bedroom festooned predictably with the usual Mad Magazine and silver age superhero comic book art. Almost in the wings are a pair of transformable mini-stages that house a Catholic school classroom and a stained-glass church interior.
Off to the sides are the exit stairs and bar entrance, respectively. And in incredibly detailed background are the crammed-together single family houses and duplexes that were (and occasionally still are) the working-class urban landscape of a typical rust-belt city whose best days even then were fast-receding into the past tense.
Amidst this authentic stage milieu, we encounter the Pazinsky family: Mom Ellen (Deborah Hazlitt), the beleaguered and world-weary materfamilias of the clan; her irascible and not-so-lovable husband and chief breadwinner Chet (Paul Morella); their slightly dumpy and just-discovering-boys daughter Annie (Corrieanne Stein); her “special needs” little brother Georgie (Christopher Cox); and her other two teen brothers, the younger Rudy (Noah Chiet), and the older, more street-wise Eddie (Connor Aiken).
The only non-family character in the play is the formidable Sister Clarissa (Carol Schultz), Rudy’s by-the-Good Book teacher at the Catholic school in which he is enrolled.
It’s easy to identify the classic sitcom elements in this play. Each of the kids possesses an unfortunate, trademark quirk. Ellen’s an exhibitionist-in-training. Eddie aspires to be a street punk but doesn’t have his heart in it. Slow-to-learn Georgie—the kind of boy the local kids would call a “ree-tard” back then—vexes everyone, particularly when, parrot-like, he picks up a nifty four-letter word he enjoys tossing about with abandon.
And then there’s Rudy, the playwright’s doppelgänger. He’s the primary focus of the play, and its primary irritant, too. Within the context of an almost unimaginably stringent 1950s, pre-Vatican II Catholicism, he’s read a couple of un-approved books on the side. Thus informed, he picks frequent theological quarrels with religious dogma, much to the discomfort of his parents and Sister Clarissa.
Aside from the kids and the rigid Sister Clarissa, Rudy’s folks, too, have their issues. Mom is the more sympathetic of the two, trying to keep her tumultuous family together with minimal help from tavern-keeper husband, Chet.
But Chet is the real family problem. Touchy, surly, bitter, neglectful of detail, he’d once realistically aspired to a career in baseball. But those dreams were crushed due to an injury. Everything bugs him now, including his family, all of whom dread dinner each night when the least little thing will set Dad off into a predictably violent, irrational tirade.
Though Tavern has endured for the better part of two decades, it is, frankly, a little difficult to see why. Dudzick’s one-liners are clearly set up in advance. You can almost anticipate that pre-live-taping canned laugh track for every one of them.
The playwright is somewhat better, however, when he zeroes in on the religious rigidity and theological claustrophobia that characterized Roman Catholicism at the midpoint of the 20th century. Your friendly reviewer grew up in precisely that kind of environment in nearby, like-minded Cleveland, Ohio, and can attest to this.
That said, however, Dudzick’s didactic script frequently bogs down in deep theological matters. Yes, this is authentic for those who experienced rote-learning from the old Baltimore Catechism, the parochial school kid’s virtual nationwide bible in that era. But those “not of the faith” will likely lose patience with the sheer repetitiousness of this stuff.
Tavern is a play that depends on the kind of acting and pacing that can get spotty material through the dull and dreary spots. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen at Olney Sunday afternoon. The play seemed under-rehearsed, feeling more like a late dress rehearsal than a ready-for-prime-time production.
It’s hard to say where the fault for this really lies. Did director John Going simply not get his concept across? Or were the actors themselves unable to grasp characters whose religious and secular lives seem more closely aligned with their medieval forbears than with superpower America?
Fortunately, there were moments of sunshine for each character, promising, perhaps, a better outcome in future performances of this play.
Corrieanne Stein was convincing in Act II when she’s forced to deal with her own sexual awakening. Central character Rudy (Noah Chiet) gets many of the best lines and generally delivers them well, although he needs to stop anticipating audience reaction to his one-liners. Eddie (Connor Aiken) and Chet (Paul Morella) have their moments when welcome complexity bursts forth out of caricature. And Carol Schultz’ Sister Clarissa—largely a two-dimensional cartoon stand-in for nasty, clueless, teaching nuns—finally gets to look a little more human near the end of Act II and takes full advantage of the moment.
Over the Tavern
Closes October 21, 2012
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $44 – $49
Tuesdays thru Sundays
More notable on Sunday were Deborah Hazlett’s Ellen, and Christopher Cox’s slower-than-average Georgie. Hazlett seemed intuitively to grasp the contradictory and impossible nature of Ellen’s relationship with her family. It’s a metaphysical messiness that forces her to be at once the heart of her brood and the only adult in the room, and Hazlett instinctively navigates the emotional IEDs littered throughout the family’s apartment and lives.
Cox triumphed over the challenge of portraying the one-dimensional Georgie. Cox has very few actual lines in this play, aside from his character’s favorite bad word. But what’s impressive is how perfectly he uses facial expressions and body language to project Georgie’s feeble hold on the real world. It’s a terrific effort by a fine young actor.
Sometimes it’s good to revisit your past. Mellowed out, 1950s parochial school-educated Catholics like this reviewer will enjoy stretches of this well-intentioned and often accurate portrayal of the way their lives really were back in that era. That’s likely to be true even though the play itself lacks the kind of inherent wit and warmth available in a similarly nostalgic but secular film like “Christmas Story.”
But for those not well-acquainted with canon law, Catholic guilt, or life as it’s still lived in authentic, working-class flyover cities like Buffalo, Olney’s Tavern might not quite live up to its promise.
Over the Tavernby Tom Dudzick, directed by John Going. Featuring Connor Aiken, Corrieanne Stein, Noah A Chiet, Christopher Cox, Deborah Hazlett, Paul Morella and Carol Schultz. Set design: James Wolk, Costume design: Liz Covey, Light desigh: Matthew McCarthy, Sound design, Jeffrey Dorfman. Produced by Olney Theatre Center. Reviewed by Terry Ponick.