At Friday's nearly sold-out performance of Over the Tavern at Richmond Hill's Barn Theatre, I found myself seated next to a charming couple who engaged me in conversation. I asked whether they had heard of the play previously, as Tom Dudzick's comedy was unfamiliar to me. The gentleman responded that he'd read a little bit about it, but his wife said, "Not me. I like being surprised."

And what a fantastic surprise Over the Tavern is!

Set in 1959, the play concerns the Pakinskis, a lower-middle-class Polish-Catholic clan living above a bar in Buffalo, New York. Our hero, 12-year-old Rudy Pazinski (Lucas Waller), is dealing not only with a severe crisis of faith, but with his continually squabbling family: Ellen (Angela Rathman), Rudy's exhausted, good-humored mother; Chet (Jeremy Mahr), his father, perpetually in a bad mood; older brothers Eddie (Kevin Maynard), in the middle stages of pure horn-doggedness, and Georgie (RJ Pratt), a mentally challenged sweetheart; and teen sister Annie (Miranda Lipes), whose interest in boys and snack cakes has, sadly for her, exploded.

In truth, Over the Tavern isn't very original; substitute "Jewish" for "Polish-Catholic" and it's practically Brighton Beach Memoirs. (Like young Eugene in Neil Simon's play, Tavern's lead is a fledgling comic - Rudy has a penchant for Ed Sullivan imitations - and his family members are nearly doppelgängers of Brighton Beach's Jerome clan.) And I wasn't much surprised, after a Google search, to learn that Dudzick's 1994 play is "semi-autobiographical" - Rudy is such a clever, preternaturally wise tyke that he just had to be the playwright's alter-ego, and Tavern occasionally stumbles in its sentimentality; there are a few too many therapy-session outbursts.

But, good Lord, is this play ever funny - far funnier, I think, than Brighton Beach. Dudzick has created marvelously-etched characters and had the good sense to make them all natural comedians; there isn't a single one you don't adore (including the play's seventh figure, an imposing nun played by Peggy Freeman). The family scenes have a beguiling realness that gives the cast's laugh lines added depth, and the production's talented director, Susan Simosky, guides her actors expertly; you'd be happy to spend several more hours in their presence.

The show is anchored by two absolutely splendid performances by Rathman and Mahr, who create a heartbreakingly, hilariously believable married couple. Rathman, with her smoky, expressive voice and weary physicality, is perfectly matched by Mahr, whose exterior gruffness disguises the teddy bear beneath; Mahr's performance suggests De Niro crossed with John Goodman. A scene of the couple dancing together, quietly in the kitchen, is the play's finest, subtlest moment.

Waller is an incredibly promising actor - focused and polished - and though he needs to slow down his readings, he's an effortlessly charming young comic. (Waller delivers a joke about Joseph and Mary that, in itself, is nearly worth the price of admission.) Maynard and Freeman are delightfully deadpan, Lipes is an ebullient, inventive comedienne, and Pratt, with his beaming, honest grin, is spectacularly funny and achingly adorable in this, his stage debut; I'm dying to see more from him.

Over the Tavern might be a stage sitcom, but it's a positively first-rate sitcom, warm and richly felt and downright hilarious. There are flaws in the material, yes, but I could hardly care less about them; I loved this production.

And good news for those who might feel as strongly about the play as I did: During that Internet search, I discovered that Over the Tavern is the first installment of a Pazinski-family trilogy that continues with King o' the Moon, set in the '60s, and Lake Effect *, which concludes the family saga in the '70s. If I were on Richmond Hill's play-selection committee, I'd secure rights to those other two immediately; as Over the Tavern suggests, its sequels could be equally enjoyable - and equally deserving - hits.

For more information, visit ( For tickets, call (309)944-2244.

* Lake Effect was later re-titled The Last Mass at St. Casimir's.

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