The North Coast Rep took a huge risk, on paper at least. Tom Dudzick’s Over the Tavern has roles for four children, ranging from 8 to 16. The safe choice: find teenage-ish actors (i.e., twentysomething), dress them young, and rely on their skills to make the characters believable. It’s been done many times — often with success, though just as often with the sense of a “stretch” — a playing down, or perking up — involved.
NCRT accepted the challenge. They cast actors the same age as the four Pazinski children. Kids! Eddie is 15; James Patterson, who plays him, is there or thereabouts. Same with Abbey Howe’s young Annie and Thor Sigurdsson’s mentally challenged Georgie. Along with seasoned technique and David Ellenstein’s smart direction, they connect with their characters’ questions and woes as if playing a twin.
This is especially true of Ian Brininstool’s Rudy. Both are 12 years old. Tavern takes place in Buffalo, New York, in 1959. Rudy has begun to see a widening gap between the Baltimore Catechism and the outside world. “Why,” he asks, “does God allow kids to steal change from blind Elmo’s newsstand?” Rudy has begun to “think” and “ask questions,” suspect habits in the late ’50s (expect him in ten years to have waist-length hair and an anti-war placard held high). Brininstool may not have Rudy’s specific concerns — 50 years later — and probably never saw Father Knows Best or Ozzie and Harriet or American Bandstand. But his puzzlement comes from an authentic — and often hilariously funny — place.
As impressive, Brininstool never plays for a laugh. He is character- (not audience-) driven. He already knows how to create a moment and then let it go — a lesson many actors take much longer to learn.
Tavern feels like a spin-off of late-’50s family comedies. But instead of idealized fathers always at home, always attentive, even when reading the paper (throw in My Three Sons and Leave It to Beaver), the playwright injects Chet Pazinski. He runs a tavern below their apartment, where his abusive father depletes the stock. Chet had hopes — could pitch a wicked curveball — but lost them in an “accident.” Now he rules his roost with what verges on psychological torment.
Matt Thompson handles a tough assignment as Chet: the play plugs genuine emotions into a sitcom veneer. So Thompson can’t, say, De Niro the role with menace. He must maintain a balance, which he does, though on occasion the script — the end, in particular — makes him jump impossible hurdles.
In many ways Tavern’s about the sins of the fathers. In the NCRT production, the women shine as well. The next time someone stages Late Nite Catechism or Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All, they should cast Lynne Griffin. Her Sister Clarissa’s a pre-Vatican II, spare-not-the-rod force. Every time she raises a ruler, many in the audience cringe.
As Ellen Pazinski, an almost idealized mother, Courtney Corey moves twice as fast on Marty Burnett’s three-room, sharply detailed set. Part therapist, part smokejumper, Corey’s fine performance makes Ellen a manager of order amid ever-threatening chaos.
Edmund Rostand’s wife Rosemonde recalled a vacation in the Pyrenees. A young man complained that he had no words — other than repeating “I love you” — to woo the apple of his eye. And she remained indifferent. Rostand trained him so well in the literary arts, the young man married his beloved.
In Rostand’s 1897 epic Cyrano de Bergerac, the title character doesn’t give young Christian a crash-course in wooing the fair Roxane. The teacher plays the student and becomes one of the world’s most courtly — i.e., platonic — lovers.
Everyone probably knows about his nose and how Cyrano became the 17th-century equivalent of a “Renaissance Man,” skilled and courageous in all things save his heart’s desire. His flaw is the opposite of hubris: he’s convinced he’s unworthy and doesn’t dare find out if Roxane could love him, which, to a post-postmodern sensibility, constitutes a negation of life (his and Roxane’s, whom he puts on a pedestal).
One of the most fascinating aspects of Patrick Page’s commanding Cyrano at the Old Globe: where most performers accentuate the positive — the panache, the swashbuckling, the Disney of it all — Page faces the rift in the man head on. This Cyrano is layered. He admirably walks his own path but pays for being an absolute outsider (in a strange way, hyperverbal Cyrano resembles Shakespeare’s nonverbal Coriolanus, who also excels in war and walls himself off from intimacy).
Under Darko Tresnjak’s expert direction, the Old Globe’s Cyrano unfolds like a pageant. Anna R. Oliver’s splendid period outfits, from soft, Gascoigne blues to Dutch Masters blacks and whites, dazzle the eye (and demand kudos for the Globe’s costume shop). Christopher R. Walker’s sound merits special mention. When Page whispers, every word is crystal clear.
Cyrano is a long play — opening night ran three and a half hours — and the production showed signs of haste, especially pacing on the quick side of brisk. It’s too bad the evening couldn’t start earlier, at 7:00 p.m. instead of 8:00, so it could spread out and move to its own internal clock and not the dictates of an 11:00 p.m. deadline or today’s chronic need for speed.
Over the Tavern, by Tom Dudzick
North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Directed by David Ellenstein; cast: Ian Brininstool, Courtney Corey, Lynne Griffin, Abbey Howe, James Patterson, Thor Sigurdsson, Matt Thompson; scenic design, Marty Burnett; lighting, Matt Novotny; costumes, Lynne Griffin; sound, Chris Luessmann
Playing through July 12; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00pm. Sunday at 7:00pm. Matinee Sunday at 2:00pm. 858-481-1055.
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
Old Globe Theatre, Lowell Davies Festival Stage, Balboa Park
Directed by Darko Tresnjak; cast: Patrick Page, Dana Green, Brendan Griffin, Bruce Turk, Grant Goodman, Celeste Ciulla, Sloan Grenz, Katie MacNichol, Charles Janasz; scenic design, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Anna R. Oliver; lighting, York Kennedy; sound, Christopher R. Walker
Playing through September 27; runs in repertory with Twelfth Night and Coriolanus. 619-234-5623.