Most writers are dorks who spend their grown-up lives trying to overcome said dorkiness by creating fictional characters who are the Dork Triumphant. Tom Dudzick admits as much in his notes on Over the Tavern, his comedy about growing up Catholic and Polish in the 1950s and the rigidly autocratic nun who made his life a living hell at the parochial school he attended. If only he'd had the balls to stand up to her.
He didn't. But Rudy, the central character in Dudzick's very funny play, does. It's that spirit of comic rebellion, of Rudy standing up to church and family, of questioning his spiritual father and temporal dad, that gives this play its energy.
Dudzick's play isn't particularly profound. It's less a play than a situational comedy given life on the stage. But it's hugely entertaining, thanks to director Terence Lamude and his excellent cast. Though its characters are stock types—the grouchy dad, the harried wife, the ruler-wielding nun, the horny teenagers—there's something about these simple characters that makes them believable.
Rudy's one of the most charming, brightly realized fictional enfants terribles to come around in a long while. Played by the talented Matthew Peters in his stage debut, Rudy is as innocently troublesome as the Beaver but with an air of incredulity that Holden Caulfield would appreciate. He's a welcome addition to America's long line of precocious adolescents and religious dissenters.
He imitates Jesus on The Ed Sullivan Show. He fashions rosary beads from Trix cereal. He wonders why if Jesus was born a Jew and then became Catholic, he can't shop around as well. At one point, when Sister Clarissa (played perfectly domineeringly by Helen Geller) demands that he memorize his catechism in order to be a soldier for Christ, Rudy innocently asks who God wants a 12-year-old to protect him from: "11-year-old Protestants?"
His strict school and less-than-perfect home life figure into Rudy's rebellion. But the true source of his outspokenness is his own nature: he's bright and inquisitive and asks questions. Those traits are triggered by his adoration of the still-new medium of TV, but he has questions nonetheless, questions the adults around him are afraid to ask and far too nervous to answer.
This is a comedy, so everything turns out swell for everyone in a heartwarming conclusion. Even the fascist nun has an epiphany when she realizes that Rudy's questions and grappling for answers are a continuation of a noble quest: Rudy is the latest in a long line of Christian dissenters, a march that began some 2,000 years ago with a wiseass kid from Nazareth baffling his teachers in the temple.
Over the Tavern at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada, (714) 994-6150. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Oct. 22. $35—that's right, $35. As in 35 one-dollar bills. Which leads us to ask the producers one important question: What's the sense of producing such a funny, entertaining play when only old people—or people with lots of disposable income—can afford to see it?