‘Tavern’: Sudsy brew lacks bite
By Nelson Pressley
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
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.
Backstage: 'Over the Tavern'
By Jessica Goldstein
Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012
All right, John Going. You’re directing “Over the Tavern” at Olney Theatre Center. It’s a play by Tom Dudzick based on Dudzick’s experiences in Catholic school in 1959. A young boy faces off against Sister Clarissa, who, in a shocking twist, is a very strict nun. Let’s hear your Catholic kid cred.
“I went through 16 years of Catholic school,” Going said. “I went to Catholic University here in Washington. It’s all very, very familiar territory to me. I remember it all very, very well. Being taught by the nuns and all of that. I told the cast on the first day of rehearsal . . . ‘If you have any questions, let me know. Because I have all the answers.’ ”
That’s . . . okay; actually that’s pretty impressive as far as Catholic cred goes. You may continue.
“The church today is very different from the way the Catholic Church was in 1959,” said Going. “The play takes place right on the brink of a lot of these changes.”
Dudzick described the work as “semi-autobiographical,” which is why he almost didn’t write it. “I’d been resisting it! I think [it was] the Catholic thing about modesty -- you should be modest, don’t shine a light on yourself -- something about that upbringing made me want to keep my light hidden under a bushel. But I decided it was just too strong.”
The cast of seven features four teenagers (age-appropriate casting: quite the trend these days), and Rudy, the precocious protagonist, will be played by Noah Chiet, who has appeared in “The History of Invulnerability” at Theater J, “The Hollow” at Signature Theatre, and “Liberty Smith” and “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s Theatre.
Going said he auditioned actors in their 20s for the kids’ roles, but “there was something really touching, a poignancy, about kids the real age playing these parts.”