On a recent morning in Spot Coffee on Delaware Avenue, Buffalo-born playwright Tom Dudzick sat at a wobbly table near the cafe’s hissing espresso machine and pulled out his best Jimmy Cagney impression.
“What’s the secret of your success, Mr. Cohan?” Dudzick said when asked about the appeal of his latest hit, slightly misquoting from a 1942 film about the Broadway producer George M. Cohan. Then he twisted his East Buffalo-accented voice into a reasonable facsimile of Cagney’s: “ ‘I’m just an ordinary guy who knows what ordinary guys like to see.’ So I feel that same way.”
Dudzick’s latest bet on what ordinary guys like to see is “Miracle on South Division Street,” a fictional story about an actual shrine to the Virgin Mary near where Dudzick grew up on the East Side. It opens Friday in the Kavinoky Theatre in a production directed by Dudzick and starring Ellen Horst, Bonnie Jean Taylor, Charmagne Chi and Ben Puglisi.
Dudzick is Buffalo’s blue-collar answer to A.R. Gurney, a playwright whose image of Buffalo was fixed in amber when he left for the bright lights of New York City in the ’70s, at age 30. Since, then, the former actor has turned his experience growing up above his father’s East Side tavern into a body of work with innate and evidently inexhaustible appeal to middle-class playgoers across the United States. His “Over the Tavern” trilogy, which drew huge crowds to the former Studio Arena Theatre throughout the ’90s and beyond, remains the most popular body of local plays in Buffalo theater history and still is frequently produced across the country.
His 2007 play “Don’t Talk to the Actors,” one of the final plays produced by Studio Arena before it went out of business, veered slightly from his traditional subject because it was set in New York City, but was still shot through with Buffalove. “Miracle on South Division Street” brings Dudzick back to where he’s most comfortable: the East Side neighborhood where he grew up and which helped to forge the blue-collar Catholic mythology that has defined his career.
“I don’t know who said it, but people love to see themselves on stage,” Dudzick said. “That’s sort of what I give them, and I don’t do it purposely. I just can’t help putting myself up there, or just the sort of person I am: not your upper-crust, just your average guy.”
“Miracle” grew out of Dudzick’s childhood fascination with the shrine, which was built on Seneca Street by a neighborhood barber who used to cut Dudzick’s and his brother’s hair. The barber claimed to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary and created a tribute, which a neighborhood resident still maintains.
“We would kneel in front of it and wonder, did she really appear? We talked to the nuns about it, and they said ‘don’t kneel in front of that, no, no,’ ” Dudzick recalled. “They weren’t about to sanction this hokey miracle.”
The nuns might not have been into it, but Dudzick couldn’t stop his imagination from creating a fantastical story about the shrine hinging on the revelation of a deep family secret.
In the play, the family’s daughter, an aspiring playwright with her eye on the bright lights of New York City, must reveal the secret to her family, causing all manner of turmoil.
To some extent, the play, set in 2010 before the creation of Howard Zemsky’s slick nearby urban development Larkinville, also deals with the decline of the neighborhood and family members’ mixed feelings about maintaining their presence there. And though it’s easy to see Dudzick’s plays as mere fodder for a certain kind of sepia-toned yearning for this rusted city’s stainless-steel past, the playwright suggests that the appeal of his work goes far beyond nostalgia.
“I think my plays deal with common problems and how to overcome them that make people think of home and family,” Dudzick said. “All these words get thrown around like Sattler’s or the Broadway Market. They have a cumulative effect, and you’re thinking, ‘That play was all about Buffalo.’ But it wasn’t really. It was about a horrible problem this family had and had to overcome.”
What: “Miracle on South Division Street”
When: 8 p.m. Friday through Dec. 8
Where: Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave.
Tickets: $35 to $39
Info: 829-7668 or www.kavinokytheatre.com