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Tweaking 'Tavern'; 'Over the Pub' takes Dudzick's classic play to 1960s Ireland

Tom Dudzick's "Over the Tavern," the local playwright's largely autobiographical play about growing up Catholic and Polish on Buffalo's East Side in the late 1950s, is back.

Sort of.

A new version of the story is now called "Over the Pub," and the Pazinskis are now the Murphys. It's 1964; Cork City, Ireland, is now home, and gone are references to take-out meatballs and sauce from Chef's in favor of fish, chips and "mushy peas." And an impostor, Sister Mary Agnes, has replaced the stern family nemesis, Sister Clarissa.

This can't be right, you think. These are developments worthy of a good Act of Contrition by favorite son Dudzick. Ultimately, though, this Irish adaptation by Dolores Mannion wins out, it "works," it's almost as funny as its progenitor, and we learn to care once again for a troubled family: parents Pat and Ellen, teenagers Eddie and Annie -- both with hormones gone amok -- special-needs Mikey and 12-year-old Tommy, a precocious, television-addicted, rules-questioning catalyst who has a problem with his catholicity.

Tommy loves the trappings of his faith but not some of the teachings. "Jesus," he prays, "you know that not-eating-meat-on-Friday business? Tell me you didn't come all the way down to Earth to make that one." And when he tries to learn by rote certain tenets, he gets into big trouble.

Sister Mary Agnes, a martinet and quick with a knuckle-banging ruler, asks him, "Why did God make you?"

Tommy ponders. "Well, I've been thinking about that. I think it was part of a science experiment." Knuckles beware.

Director Sheila McCarthy has done wise work with young and talented Tomas Leonardo Waz; he's Tommy personified. Others in this O'Connell & Company production -- a coup, actually, for it's the American premiere of "Pub" -- include Gregory and Mary Gjurich, Sean Ryan, Alex Race, Erin Brignone and area acting diva Tess Spangler, as Sister Mary Agnes. The group seems to have that necessary "good chemistry," voices not always reaching far beyond the proscenium stage, but they're believable. Mary Gjurich is particularly fine as voice-of-reason Mom, Waz is consistently real and the estimable Spangler is wonderful.

In truth, "Over the Pub" seems angrier than the original. Dad Murphy rants and there is much shouting; Tommy often prays for his father to come home in a "good mood." Long-ago issues surface, along with considerable dysfunction and hints of marital discord.

But the story still has the power to charm and the home visit of Sister Mary Agnes remains uproarious. Catholic school veterans will time-travel.

It's just that, in the end, audience guffaws from the old "Tavern" have given way to giggles with "Pub."

***

"Over the Pub"

2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

WHEN: Through April 10

WHERE: Presented by O'Connell and Company, Gleasner Hall, Erie Community College North, 6205 Main St., Williamsville.

TICKETS: $22; $16 for students and seniors

INFO: 848-0800; oconnellandcompany.com.

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