A Polish-Catholic family lives in Over the Tavern, a charming Olney Theatre Center production set in the fall of 1959 in Buffalo, New York. The play, written by Tom Dudzick, is reminiscent of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memories and centers on 12 year-old Rudy Pazinski played by Noah Chiet.
Rudy is struggling with his approaching confirmation in the Catholic Church. He is also an Ed Sullivan-obsessed, smart-aleck teen, who challenges his teacher, Sister Clarissa (Carol Schultz), about everything having to do with Catechism. He proclaims, “God put us on earth to have fun.” As the story unfolds, Rudy learns there are over thirteen hundred religions in the world and “wants to shop around.” One of the funniest scenes is where Rudy has cut off his Mickey Mouse ears to fashion a makeshift yarmulke then asserts he is now a Jew. Noah delivers Rudy’s punch-lines with perfect comic timing, yet sometimes breaks the fourth wall by observing the audience’s response.
…funny, delightful, and timeless
Ms. Schultz plays Sister Clarissa perfectly. She is the play-by-the-rules nun that is despised by the Catholic school students. Yet, in later years, students will probably discover she was a strong influence in their religious development, questioning the authority she represented, with a heart beneath her literal and metaphorical habit. Carol gives a sit-up-straight yet laugh-out-loud performance touching more than one generation of the Pazinski family.
Rudy’s mother, Ellen Pazinski, played by Deborah Hazlett, is the highlight of the show. Her character is wise, understanding, and totally funny. There is a true connection with all her children as she takes on their growing pains. She willingly shares her wisdom and a bit of her insecurities, especially when she cracks open a beer; after all the family business is running a tavern. She both identifies and empathizes with her four children, guides them with a gentle hand, and has poignant moments with each. Her performance is a bit of Caroline Rhea (from Sabrina the Teenage Witch), Catherine O’Hara (of Home Alone), and Debra Jo Rupp (That ‘70s Show) rolled into one. Ellen is a very lovable character thanks to Deborah’s dazzling portrayal.
Corrieanne Stein plays the only daughter, Annie, raised among three very different brothers. Definitely coming-of-age, it is clear Annie struggles between her sexual curiosities and being damned-to-hell for her womanly thoughts and actions. Her character is very much like every-teenage-girl regardless of the time period. When she confesses to her mother about undressing with the shades up, Corrieanne really brings Annie to life, revealing her teenage angst and vulnerabilities. The courtship of Annie’s parents is revealed along with her mother’s flight from the farm into the arms of Chet, her father. Both mother and daughter are “lookers” and it takes only the excuse of Annie’s sexual-awakening for her mother to disclose some of her parents’ most romantic days.
Eddie Pazinski, the protective oldest brother, played by Connor Aikin, seeks younger brother Rudy’s council on the differences between moral and venial sins; yet, he is heroic in defense of his siblings. He struggles with his relationship with his father. While trying to prove he is man, he fights to not be like his father; yet, he is on the brink of being just like him. Similar to Annie, Eddie is an every-teenage-boy, begging to be heard and making wrong choices for the right reasons.
Christopher Cox nailed Georgie Pazinski, who is either autistic or has Tourette’s syndrome. Though his disability is not explained, the Pazinski family accepts Georgie as is, with a little mischief on the side. When Georgie learns a new curse word, family members—especially Mom—are stunned. However, it is through Georgie that family members understand a different perspective of life. Shockingly funny, Christopher delivers this character with great comedic timing and slap-stick humor.
The father is a difficult character to understand, which means Paul Morella represents Chet Pazinski flawlessly. True of some fathers of the 1950s who were taught to provide for their family and be non-emotional, this father does not always know best. He is emotionally abusive, screaming at the top of his lungs, “as long as you’re under my roof” which brings his children to fight with him, rebel against him, or turn to their mother for comfort and advice. Eventually, his character takes a turn for the better when he starts talking, really talking, and listening to his family.
The set fills the proscenium and two wings of the Olney Theater Center’s stage. It is visually pleasing with skewed rooftops against an autumn blue projected sky and populated with signs ending in “ski” as it relates to Polish-America last names. Most of the action takes place in the Pazinski’s kitchen dressed in period wallpaper, a laminate dining table with vinyl-clad chrome chairs, and worn metal cabinets. The boy’s bedroom has classic plaid bedding with magazine covers mounted on the walls. Props like the vintage television, the worn plaid sofa, and the Sputnik-inspired glass tumblers add to the ambience and charm of this 1950’s era set while representing the hard-working middle class.
The costumes are nostalgically indulgent to those of a certain age. The mother’s housedress and shoes, along with Annie’s plaid skirt, cardigan, and saddle shoes are evocative of Elvis and beehive hair-do days. Rudy and Eddie don conservative trousers, button down shirts, and slicked back hair that could be compared to Rod Sterling’s of the Twilight Zone. Georgie is comfortable in his red-striped polo-like shirt and beige pants while the father’s suspenders not only hold up his trousers; symbolically they seemed to hold him up too.
All in all, Over the Tavern is funny, delightful, and timeless. Even though it takes place in the 1950s, 21st Century families will relate to this coming-of-age comedy in which the Pazinski family leaves the audience with thoughts of what to question and what to accept.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.
Over the Tavern is running through October 21, 2012 at Olney Theater Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. To get show times or purchase tickets click here or call the box office at 301-924-3400.