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.

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