Verona has the Montagues and Capulets. Hannibal, Mo., has Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. New Orleans has Ignatius J. Reilly.
And we have the Pazinskis, the irresistible gang of Polish-Catholic Buffalonians conjured from the childhood memories of playwright Tom Dudzick, whose “Over the Tavern” trilogy has permanently enshrined them as leading, if somewhat bumbling, figures in the city’s modest literary mythology.
Kvetch all you want, ye who would rather we boasted more complex or high-minded characters like Humbert Humbert or Moses Herzog. The Pazinskis are ours, and we’re lucky to have them.
And after reappearing on the Kavinoky stage last September in a popular, Dudzick-directed revival of his original “Over the Tavern,” the Pazinskis are back again in fine form, minus their grumpy but lovable paterfamilias, for the sequel.
“King o’ the Moon,” is set in the Pazinski’s backyard in the Hydraulics District in the 1969, when the Apollo 11 mission was hurtling toward its lunar destination but the twinkling lights of Larkinville remained beyond imagination. It’s 10 years after the close of the original “Over the Tavern,” and the world is a different place.
Chet Pazinski is several years gone, and his grown children’s problems have grown beyond the garden-variety sort: Rudy (the appealing Dan Urtz), the young Ed Sullivan-impersonator whose flirtations with apostasy produced the biggest laughs during last September’s show, is reluctantly delivering on a deathbed promise to his father to become a priest.
Rudy’s growing anti-war sentiments don’t play well with his brother Eddie (Adriano Gatto, simmering with anger), who is just back from basic training and about to ship out to Vietnam, leaving behind his pregnant wife, Maureen, played by Kelsey Mogensen with seemingly effortless comic timing.
His sister, Annie (the pitch-perfectly neurotic Kelly Copps), meanwhile, is trapped in a loveless marriage to a man obsessed with model trains.
Georgie (Kevin Craig), the mentally disabled and deeply beloved sibling based on Dudzick’s late brother Michael, is still digging away for prizes in his box of Rice Krispies and delighting the entire family with his antics.
And matriarch Ellen (Loraine O’Donnell) is holding down the Pazinski fort with all her requisite charm, with the help of newly developed love interest Walter (Steve Vaughan). These performances, like the rest, are irresistible.
If all this sounds a bit too involved for the sort of low-stakes nostalgia-fest to which critics have often unfairly reduced Dudzick’s trilogy, it comes off marvelously in this production. Yes, the various crises of conscience here seem manufactured in the mold of “The Wonder Years,” and the backdrop of perpetual twilight lit by a full moon evokes a memory of an impossibly distant era. But against this setting, and on one of David King’s finest sets, the drama and humor that play out seem viscerally real.
Much of this is thanks to Dudzick’s consistently inventive comic writing, which perforates the harrowing sibling rivalries at the heart of the piece with spot-on comic relief and remarkably effective moments of tenderness and vulnerability.
One classic Dudzick scene is a post-fight interaction between Rudy and Eddie, in which the pair of them simply stand next to one another and move their jaws back and forth to determine whether the click Rudy detects in his jaw after Eddie punched him is a congenital condition or the result of being clocked by his brother. It’s a simple moment, but highly effective and charming in the playwright’s inimitable way.
It helps immensely that there is not a false note in the entire ensemble, which boasts universally fine performances. No one stands out because they all stand out, which must be thanks at least in part to Dudzick’s direction. As a relative newcomer to the game of directing, he clearly knows his way around his own scripts. Like the indelible characters he’s created, his work seems to improve with time.
It’ll be hard to wait another year for the Pazinskis to return.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
What: “King o’ the Moon”
When: Through Oct. 4
Where: Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave.
Info: Tickets are $42; 829-7668 or www.kavinokytheatre.com