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Theater Review

Growing Up Polish, Catholic and Above a 'Tavern'

Tom Dudzick's work makes its L.A.-area debut placing laughs over pain.


Since its 1994 debut, Tom Dudzick's puppy-like crowd-pleaser "Over the Tavern" has bounced around the country and become "a regional favorite in cities such as Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Cincinnati," according to the playwright's program biography. More recently, it has played in Sacramento and San Jose. Now it makes its Southern California premiere at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.

It's a nice production of a semi-autobiographical heart warmer, about growing up Catholic, Polish and lippy in 1950s Buffalo.

Catholic memoir-wise, we're squarely in the land of "Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?" here. Dudzick reworks his own family memories in the service of the fictional Pazinski family. Bullying, bad-tempered Dad (Richard Ruyle) tends bar at the struggling tavern below the apartment. Peacekeeping, miss-no-trick Mom (Stephanie Dunnam) has her hands full with Eddie (Scott Bridges) and his girlie mags; Annie (Stephanie Carrie), wondering where the boys are; Georgie (Braden McKinley), retarded, lately given to repeating the S-word at inappropriate moments; and our hero, 12-year-old Rudy (Matthew Peters, a slicker version of a young Clint Howard).

Rudy has a comeback for everything and has worked up a pretty fair imitation of Ed Sullivan. (He imagines, in his room, what it'd be like if Jesus Christ appeared on Sullivan's TV show.) This wise-guy streak lately has vexed Sister Clarissa (Helen Geller), the formidable disciplinarian from St. Casimir's charged with training Rudy to be a soldier for Christ. Rudy's ambivalent about his imminent confirmation. Religion-wise, couldn't he just shop around for a while?

Dudzick knows how to get his faith-based laughs. However glib Rudy's conversations with God become, "Over the Tavern" is satisfying on its own terms, and it's better-built than his earlier family comedy "Greetings!"

There's some pain in it as well. "Over the Tavern" glances on some tough, unhappy matters of physical and emotional abuse. In the Pazinskis, we see a family of flinchers, fearing Dad's mood swings. (Those of us who grew up flinch-free can only be grateful.) But throughout, you sense Dudzick struggling with a dilemma: How to integrate this volatile father figure with the jolly stuff? Will too much pain kill the laughs?

It will, at least in this context. Dudzick favors the laughs. So does director Terence Lamude, who has staged this play before. In his hands it plays smoothly, confidently. As Chet, the father, Ruyle displays a nicely judged slow burn in between explosions. Dunnam's dialect beams on and off, but she's good company--and she doesn't push for the jokes. (Too often Bridges' Eddie and Carrie's Annie make faces as opposed to slipping inside their roles.) Geller's Sister Clarissa is a work of grim gravity and, in Act 2--when the character loosens up to an improbable degree--wry humor. And Peters is fun as Rudy.

By the time Ruyle and Dunnam take their polka-dance curtain call, the audience at La Mirada was pretty well seduced. "Over the Tavern" will probably rate as a success here, as it has in other cities. Which means we'll probably soon see "King o' the Moon," the second chapter in Dudzick's family trilogy.

* "Over the Tavern," La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 22. $35. (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Scott Bridges: Eddie

Stephanie Carrie: Annie

Stephanie Dunnam: Ellen

Helen Geller: Sister Clarissa

Braden McKinley: Georgie

Matthew Peters: Rudy

Richard Ruyle: Chet

Written by Tom Dudzick. Directed by Terence Lamude. Scenic design by Gary Wissmann. Costumes by Dwight Richard Odle. Lighting by Martin Aronstein. Sound by Tom Gould. Production stage manager Marti Stone.

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