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‘Over the Tavern’ at Olney Theatre Center is a sudsy brew

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The Olney Theatre Center is now serving a nostalgic, wisecracking dramedy of Catholic family dysfunction, circa 1959. It’s called “Over the Tavern,” and it’s log-cabin-thick with drippy sentimentality.

It starts with a knuckle-cracking nun (sternly played by Carol Schultz) who can’t drum religious respect into 12-year-old Rudy Pazinski (the capably witty Noah Chiet). But scenes in school and church, and eventually in a hospital, are placed on the far edges of James Wolk’s set, the bulk of which is a full-blown apartment — four bedrooms, one bath, plus a grubby kitchen and a cramped den — above the tavern owned by Rudy’s cranky father.

Such a mess, this overstuffed household. Rudy’s mentally challenged brother Georgie (Christopher Cox) sits too close to the TV and shouts the lone dirty word he knows whenever it’s most likely to generate a spit-take from a shocked adult. Older brother Eddie (Connor Aikin) substitutes for a friend on a paper route and gets paid in girlie magazines. Their teen sister, Annie (Corrieanne Stein), sneaks Twinkies and is known around the neighborhood to have undressed with her bedroom blinds open.

Tom Dudzick’s script, which has been widely produced since its 1994 debut (was Dudzick trying to pick up Neil Simon’s mantle?), gears things to implode reliably at dinner. The clan’s dad, Chet (Paul Morella), invariably forgets to bring home the takeout spaghetti, and his wife, Ellen (Deborah Hazlett), somehow keeps only canned beets in the pantry.

John Going directs this schmaltz with the requisite sense of domestic hubbub. But this is cut-rate Simon or Woody Allen, despite some nice jokes from Rudy as he sabotages his catechism with the bruising nun. (“Food for thought,” he deadpans after she smacks him in the head with a book.) Dudzick’s strategy is to create shenanigans for his screwy but lovable characters ­until he finds enough nerve to poke toward the real drama, the incident in the past that makes Chet so distant and angry. That doesn’t happen until an easily digestible last-minute revelation with the nun.

Dudzick seems to want real gravity between Chet and Ellen, but their loopy dinner debacles make no sense. Even the skilled Morella and Hazlett, so memorable together as the shattered parents in Olney’s terrific production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole,” can’t seem to find a dramatic or comic core. Hazlett’s acting is always appealingly direct, so her Ellen is an effectively frank cross-examiner of both Chet and the kids. Morella’s task is impossible, though, because Dudzick’s desire to charm audiences keeps him from going beyond mere gentle antics with Chet.

On the other hand, that cautious instinct to inoffensively entertain may be what has helped the sappy “Tavern” stick to so many American stages.

Over the Tavern

by Tom Dudzick. Directed by John Going. Lights, Matthew McCarthy; costumes, Liz Covey; sound design, Jeffrey Dorfman. About 21 / 2 hours. Through Oct. 21 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.

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