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.