Stop me if you heard this one before. There’s this twelve year old kid in school in the Eisenhower years, and like most kids his age, he wants to have fun. But he is in Catholic school with this very strict nun who is determined to … oh, you have heard this before.
Actually, you have not, despite the very familiar situation. Currently at Olney Theater Center is “Over the Tavern,” which mines this whole parochial school coming of age gambit for laughs, but it is also family drama that explores more serious themes. Think of it as “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” Catholic division.
Rudy Pazinski is a precocious twelve year old, a good kid and very creative, if a little bit of a smart aleck at times. He is part of the larger Pazinski clan, which includes an older brother and sister, both in the throes of adolescence, and a younger brother with mental challenges. There’s the requisite stay at home mother and a hard working father with “bad moods.” It turns out that ruler wielding Sister Clarissa is just one of several issues that young Rudy has to contend with.
Tom Dudzick’s play speaks of a very specific time, 1959 America, but also a world in transition. Some of this is hinted at in the play: Rudy’s sister Annie dreaming about a romantic foreign film while ne’er do well older brother Eddie being caught with a dirty magazine hint at the sexual revolution that will hit a decade later. While Sister Clarissa represents the old guard, there is mention of a younger Father Mike who takes a different approach, as if presaging the changes from Vatican II just around the corner.
It is also a clever inversion of all those family situation comedies that flooded that newfangled device called the television. Typical family situation, but here it is more “Mother Knows Best” as mom keeps this contentious brood together.
The set design James Wolk sets the scene beautifully – a large family house with hints of neighborhood buildings in the background. Other scenes like the Catholic school room, the church, and a hospital are brought in on the sides. The focus is on the Pazinski household, which is also the focus of the play.
Director John Going paces it all very well and gets great acting from his cast. He follows Dudzick’s lead in suggesting this is a typical Catholic school play with Noah Chiet’s likeable school clown Rudy versus Carol Schultz’s strict Sister Clarissa.
Gradually you realize that the focus of the play is the parents, and both Deborah Hazlett and Paul Morella do a fine job gradually taking over as the central characters of this play. Good support from Christopher Cox, Connor Aiken, and Corrieanne Stein as the remainder of the Pazinski family, each with their own stories to tell. By the end of the play, each character will have changed from how they began. Despite all these characters and story lines, the play remains uncluttered and easy to follow.
All too often, people speak of the 1950s as this oasis of the American Dream, before the sixties came along and ruined everything. There is a nostalgic innocence in this play – I especially liked how the family handles their mentally challenged younger son as an integral member of the family. But the play also looks at more difficult issues, and how the old rote lessons no longer answer these questions for a new generation. Some people look at the decade with rose colored glasses - Dudzick’s glasses let him see quite clearly.
While mention of “pagan babies” brought laughter from a segment of the audience, you do not need to be Catholic to enjoy this play, although when Sister Clarissa shouts “sit up straight,” you may end up following instructions even if you never set foot in a parochial school.
“Over the Tavern” continues at Olney Theater through October 21. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 924-3400 or go online to http://www.olneytheatre.org.
Mocovox Entertainment Critic