“A heartwarming and enjoyable play…happy and satisfying.”

‘Over the Tavern’ staged by Penguin Rep 🔗
Cynthia O. ToppsRecord

STONY POINT — “Over the Tavern” is an autobiographical look at playwright Tom Dudzick’s life in Buffalo in the 1950s. His father owned a tavern, Big Joe Dudzick’s, and the family of six lived in a small apartment over that tavern. Dudzick has turned his childhood memories, both happy and sad, into a heartwarming and enjoyable play that is being staged by Penguin Rep.

Upon entering the theater, one is transported back to 1959 by the design by Ken Larson of the apartment of the Pazinskis, the fictionalized name chosen by the playwrights to represent his family. The play is told through the eyes of 12-year-old Rudy Pazinski, who is struggling to learn his catechism in preparation for Catholic confirmation. Rudy would rather tell jokes, do Ed Sullivan impressions and question the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Christopher Cox, who portrays Rudy, is the luminary of the production. Whether he is acting, reacting or talking to Jesus, Cox is perfection in the role. He runs circles around the adult performers, who are no lightweights themselves. His energetic and engaging manner makes it difficult for even Sister Clarissa to stay angry at him for long, even after he refuses to be confirmed or threatens to convert.

The adults in the piece all have an influence on Rudy. Sister Clarissa (Judy Frank) is Rudy’s teacher, disciplinarian and spiritual mentor. Frank gives the Sister just the right mix of compassionate concern, strong moral conviction and sly wit. She is particularly fine in the scene where Rudy and his father, Chet, a former student of Sister Clarissa’s, come to visit her in the hospital.

As Chet, the Pazinski patriarch, Kevin Cutts has the difficult task of portraying a complicated character who is drowning in financial, marital and family problems. Cutts skillfully conveys all Chet’s frustrations but he also manages to show a man struggling to be a loving father and husband.

Ellen (Kathryn Markey) is the Pazinski matriarch, and family confessor. She is the voice of reason, to which the children turn for advice and counsel rather than to their angry and moody father. Dealing with Georgie (Jonny Adamow), a special needs child; Eddie (Stephen Adamow), a sex-obsessed teenager; Annie (Ashley Scales), an adolescent with self-esteem issues; Rudy, the family clown and skeptic; and Chet, her floundering spouse, would make any woman drink or run away from home. Markey adeptly portrays Ellen’s weariness and frustration, but she capitalizes on Ellen’s moments of sharp cleverness. The rare instances when Markey smiles give a glimpse of the woman behind the apron.

The actors playing Rudy’s brothers and sister handle their respective roles capably. They are so at ease with one another that they actually look and seem like true siblings.

Without giving it away, the ending is happy and satisfying. But to find out Rudy’s spiritual fate, a ticket to Penguin Rep will have to be purchased.

“Thomas Caruso has directed “Over the Tavern” with affection and comic vitality.”

Shuffling Off to the Buffalo of the 1950s 🔗
Anita GatesNew York Times

When little Rudy Pazinski prays, he asks Jesus to make his teacher Sister Clarissa not so mean, to make sure Dad doesn’t forget to pick up the spaghetti and, while he’s at it, to put Dad in a good mood that night.

It’s a practical approach to prayer, but then Rudy is a very practical seventh grader in Tom Dudzick’s “Over the Tavern,” the sweet, funny, gently irreverent opening production of the Penguin Repertory Theater’s 2010 season.

Growing up in Buffalo in 1959, Rudy is the say-anything-that-comes-to-mind star of the show. And he’s played by a rising star, 12-year-old Christopher Cox, who performed on Broadway as Mother’s Little Boy in last fall’s revival of “Ragtime.” (USA Today liked his “sweetness and spunk.” The Washington Post called him irresistible.) But the whole Pazinski family, as a unit, is just as important to the overall picture.

Mr. Dudzick has written them cute. They are, after all, inspired by his own family, who did indeed live in an apartment over the family tavern in Buffalo when he was a boy. But the casting director, Cindi Rush, has spiced up the recipe by assembling a particularly likable cast of fine actors who seem a little mismatched, as all families must feel sometimes. (What child hasn’t wondered: who are these strange people who claim to be my parents? And what parent hasn’t thought the same thing, at least once, about his or her children?)

Kathryn Markey is lovable as Ellen, the mother, who matter-of-factly keeps her husband and four children in line. Only a wry sense of humor (and the mid-20th-century American view of women’s roles) keep her going. It does seem like a stretch, though, that when her husband forgets to pick up that spaghetti dinner from the local restaurant, the only things she has in the cupboard are canned beets and breakfast cereal.

Chet, her husband, is played with convincing paternal exhaustion, grumpiness and cluelessness by Kevin Cutts. Mr. Cutts makes an undershirt, boxer shorts and knee-high socks seem like perfectly normal at-home wear. Until a nun shows up at his door.

Jonny and Stephan Adamow, real-life brothers from Stony Point, are making their professional theater debuts as the Pazinskis’ other two sons, Georgie and Eddie.

Georgie looks healthy and robust, but it soon becomes clear that he has Down syndrome. It is equally clear that his siblings love him deeply and would never think about being embarrassed by him. I like the way Jonny Adamow plays the scene in which his mother edges Georgie back from his spot on the floor where he is watching TV inches from the screen.

Eddie is the eldest child, a teenager with the usual preoccupations with sex and independence. Stephan Adamow makes the character both attractive as a young man and sympathetic as the little boy who still lives inside him. Stephan is taller than Ms. Markey, adding a nice physical dynamic to her (highly effective) attempts to control this giant child as long as he lives under her roof.

Ashley Scales plays Annie, the only daughter, an insecure adolescent who faces life awkwardly. Her acts of rebellion — like teasing her hair to ridiculous proportions (“It looks like the pope’s hat,” her mother tells her) — generally don’t go well. But Annie generates a radiance that turns into beauty when she learns that the boy next to her in glee club likes her.

There wouldn’t be much of a plot, though, without Sister Clarissa (Judy Frank), the bane of Rudy’s Catholic school existence. To be fair, Rudy is pretty much the bane of hers too. He prefers imitating Ed Sullivan to memorizing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. “Did Ed Sullivan die for your sins?” Sister Clarissa asks him.

When Rudy announces that he refuses to be confirmed, the good sister visits the Pazinskis’ home. There, things just get worse. Rudy announces that he’s read that “there are over 1,300 religions in the world” and, now that he’s aware of that, he says, “I’d like to shop around.” You can imagine the sister’s reaction.

Ms. Frank is called on to show us two very different sides of her character: the comically strict teaching nun; then, in the latter part of Act II, the real human being she is when she’s off duty. She does both well, but Mr. Dudzick’s script makes Sister Clarissa awfully easy to impress. When Rudy makes her a rosary out of Trix cereal, you’d think he’d recreated the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Thomas Caruso has directed “Over the Tavern” with affection and comic vitality. Yes, it’s pretty much just a staged sitcom with a dash of pretend blasphemy, but it has real heart.

FOR LAUGHS Rudy Pazinski (Christopher Cox) with his nemesis, Sister Clarissa (Judy Frank), in “Over the Tavern,” the opening production of the Penguin Repertory Theater’s 2010 season. Credit Zachary Spitzer

“Excellent…genuine…funny…directed briskly by Thomas Caruso. Over The Tavern is an overall delight.”

Penguin’s “Over the Tavern” 🔗
Peter D. KramerThe Journal News

Note to the Jerome family of Brighton Beach: The Pazinskis of Buffalo are giving you a run for your comic money at Penguin Rep in Stony Point.

Tom Dudzick’s comedy “Over the Tavern,” now opening Penguin’s 33rd season, is a Catholic cousin to Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”

It’s about a big family in a small space. (Buffalo, not Brooklyn.)

It features a young kid with plenty of questions. (Rudy Pazinski, not Eugene Morris Jerome.)

While the Jeromes deal with the Depression, the Pazinskis deal with their father’s depression, and with a stern, ruler-wielding nun, Sister Clarissa.

Dudzick and Simon share an ear for clever dialogue and well-drawn characters and there’s a sweetly unapologetic sentiment at work here, one that some critics might sniff at, but it is genuine. And funny.

Penguin audiences likely will remember Dudzick’s hilarious “Our Lady of South Division Street,” which has since gone on to a production at Seven Angels Theater in Waterbury.

That play — about a family’s shrine in Buffalo — has been renamed “Miracle on South Division Street” and is eyeing a New York City run.

“Over the Tavern,” based on Dudzick’s early years growing up one flight up from his father’s Buffalo bar, is directed briskly by Thomas Caruso.

Rudy Pazinski, 12, wants relief from the drudgery of the Baltimore catechism. He’d like a religion that’s more fun. He has had enough of memorizing answers: He has answers of his own.

Sister Clarissa: “Why did God make us?”

Rudy: “OK, I’ve been thinking about that. And I think God meant it as a science experiment.”

Not the answer the sister wanted. More detention.

Rudy, played deftly by Broadway veteran Christopher Cox (“Ragtime”), would much rather work on his Ed Sullivan impersonation than on his catechism.

The excellent cast includes Judy Frank as Sister Clarissa, Kathryn Markey as Ellen, Kevin Cutts as Chet, and three fine local actors — Ashley Scales, Jonny Adamow and Stephan Adamow.

Cox impersonates Ed Sullivan, but Kathryn Markey’s performance as mother Ellen Pazinski might remind some of another regular Sullivan act: those guys who could keep many plates spinning at one time.

Ellen careens from one family crisis to another: A moody husband needs comforting; Annie needs advice about boys; Eddie needs to stop reading Playboy; Rudy needs to connect with his father; and Georgie, a boy with developmental problems, needs to sit farther back from the TV and stop sucking his thumb.

In each, Ellen is the voice of reason, but not without her doubts: “Well,” she says at one point. “I don’t think I could have handled that any worse.”

Markey finds just the right tone in each interaction. It is something to behold, the calm at the center of the storm.

Jonny Adamow does much with little as Georgie, a character modeled on the playwright’s older brother, who was born with Down syndrome. Georgie doesn’t say much — and one of the words isn’t suitable for a family newspaper — but Adamow is a study in focus and concentration. Also fine are Adamow’s real-life older brother, Stephan, as Eddie, and Ashley Scales as the forever-sorry Annie.

Cutts plays the changeable Chet well, as a man who is a product of his upbringing but who lets his work get the better of him. Even his rare softer moments carry an edge to them, and rightly so.

Judy Frank plays Sister Clarissa with an iron hand and a wondrous mix of puzzlement at Rudy.

Like “Brighton Beach,” which Simon followed with “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound,” “Over the Tavern” sparked a trilogy of its own, followed by “King O’ the Hill,” and “The Last Mass at St. Casimir’s.”

Here’s hoping next spring finds the next installment of the trilogy.

Make the trip to Stony Point, exit 15 off the Palisades Parkway. You’re bound to see something or someone you recognize in “Over the Tavern.”

And it’s closer than Brooklyn. And a lot closer than Buffalo.