Audiences grin ear-to-ear at the Hipp's ‘Over the Tavern'

“Over the Tavern” features Sara Morsey as Sister Clarissa and Paxton Sanchez as Rudy, her 12-year-old student coming of age in 1959 Buffalo, through March 18 at the Hipp.(ALLISON DURHAM/CORRESPONDENT)

Published: Thursday, March 1, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 29, 2012 at 5:51 p.m.

You don't have to be profound to make audiences happy. And judging from the audience's reaction at The Hippodrome, where Tom Dudzick's comedy-drama “Over the Tavern” is playing, humor and nostalgia trump profundity.

“Over the Tavern” is set in 1950s Buffalo where an every-day Catholic family is experiencing the typical growing pains of families everywhere. Its portrait of the Pazinski family tugs at the heart strings, making audiences laugh and cry by turns as it recognizes the family that used to be and, for some, still exists.

Considering all the bad publicity the Catholic church has endured in recent years, “Over the Bridge” is an outright gift. With humor and empathy, Dudzick presents 12-year-old Rudy Pazinski, who is slowly driving his teacher, Sister Clarissa, out of her mind as he questions why God created people.

Rudy's theory is “to have fun.” He does a mean imitation of showman Ed Sullivan followed by an innovative impersonation of Jesus Christ — himself. According to Rudy, since no one really knows what Jesus looked like, his interpretation is as valid as any. Sister Clarissa, a nun who belongs to the “slap-the-child-with-the-ruler” order, is not amused.

When Rudy doesn't respond to several palm thrashings, decides he doesn't want to be a soldier for Christ and intends to “shop around” for other religions, she decides a home visit is in order.

The Pazinski apartment above the tavern where Rudy's father works houses the entire family: father Chet, mother Ellen, daughter Annie and sons Rudy, Eddie and Georgie, a sweet, mentally retarded child whose power of speech is limited to saying, “Nnnnn” and the unprintable “s” word. Eddie, a 15-year-old, is preoccupied with sex. Shy Annie is similarly preoccupied. Georgie doesn't do much but suck his thumb, watch TV and spit out expletives for the sheer joy of seeing his family's horrified reaction.

The questioning child of the family, Rudy, is its most interesting member as he tries to arrange a deal with God: make Sister Clarissa less mean, let Dad remember to bring home spaghetti for dinner, and put Dad in a good mood. In return, he'll learn his catechism and be confirmed.

Ellen Pazinski, the children's mother, makes the family work. She's smart, kind, levelheaded and good with each of the children. Nichole Hamilton as Ellen is not only a solid mom but a very solid performer. She also has some of Dudzick's funniest lines which she tosses off with brave nonchalance.

Their father, Chet, a hard-working man who lives by the rules of his church, never thinks to question. Tired and disgruntled, he trudges upstairs from the tavern, often forgetting the spaghetti he promised to bring for dinner. As Chet, Cameron Francis seethes with suppressed anger and frustration, which, perhaps, is the reason why he rushes his lines. Chet's conflict with the church's teachings and the needs of his family lies at the crux of the play; his inability to communicate with his children and really know them gives the play its more dramatic moments.

When Sister Clarissa, impeccably portrayed by Sara Morsey (who could make a career of playing nuns; remember her in “Doubt?”), visits the Pazinski home, all hell breaks loose as Chet is pitted against his own children with Ellen, their mother, in fiercely protective mode. Centuries-old dogma becomes pitted against mother love, and Sister Clarissa had best move to the side of the angels who always win out in this cheerily recognizable conflict.

Audiences grin ear-to-ear at this Hippodrome production of “Over the Tavern.” It's a happily-ever-after show directed like a swiftly moving train by Lauren Caldwell. Right on that train with her are Paxton Sanchez who plays Rudy with a lot of heart and sincerity; Whitney Humphrey, who is totally immersed in his role as the mentally retarded Georgie; Filipe Valle Costa as the strong, protective older brother, Eddie; and Taylor Badri as Annie, the shy sister. (Both Badri and Costa appear to be physically older than teenagers.)

The all-purpose set of the upstairs apartment for the show was designed by Kent Barrett, the appropriate costumes are by Marilyn A. Wall and the tuneful 1950s' sound design is by Risa J. Baxter.

With only happy faces smiling in the crowd on opening weekend, the Hipp's “Over the Tavern” looks like a hit, all tied up in a neat, pretty bow.

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