Go ahead. Try not to be charmed by Tom Dudzick. Let me know how far you get.
I held out for maybe half an hour of his sublimely hokey “Miracle on South Division Street,” the latest page in Dudzick’s seemingly endless book of love letters to his native Buffalo, which opened Friday in the Kavinoky Theatre.
Beyond that point, no plot twist was too absurd, no line of dialogue too hackneyed, no situation too contrived to quell the riotous laughter in the theater. Just know this going in: Resistance to Dudzick is futile. The more you protest, the harder you’ll laugh.
Such is the skill of Buffalo’s working-class P.G. Wodehouse, whose utter and earnest goofiness is the fuel that propels this one-act play about a family of East Buffalo Catholics who are caught in an earth-rattling crisis of faith just in time for Christmas.
The show is based on a shrine to the Virgin Mary on Seneca Street which was built by neighborhood barber Joseph Battaglia in the ’50s after he claimed to have seen a vision of the Blessed Mother in his shop. Dudzick grew up in the neighborhood and had always been fascinated by the shrine. It was embraced by the faithful, who continue to visit and leave coins and letters, but dismissed by neighborhood nuns, whose lofty standards for miracles were evidently not met by Battaglia’s claim.
During the 2007 production of Dudzick’s play “Don’t Talk to the Actors” during the final season of Studio Arena Theatre, he returned to the old ’hood and was inspired to write a play. The actual story – barber has vision, barber builds shrine – was a bit one-dimensional for Dudzick’s taste, so he put his own spin on it.
Make that several spins. Make that a 90-minute, one-act spin cycle.
Recounting the plot in any detail would give away key elements. Suffice it to say that the family at the center of the play has been taking care of the shrine since it was built in the belief that it was divinely inspired. When one character challenges this long-held belief, the faith that held this tight-knit family together begins to crumble.
Were Dudzick’s story presented straightforwardly, it would be almost too absurd to handle. But because of his irresistible characters and his ever-readiness with a Buffalo-based quip, that absurdity works to the play’s advantage.
At the head of the Nowak family is the tough-as-nails matriarch Clara (Ellen Horst), who holds fast to her religion and uses it, as any good Catholic mother would, to keep her children Jimmy (Ben Puglisi), Ruth (Bonnie Jean Taylor) and Beverly (Charmagne Chi) in line.
Ruth, unlike her siblings who have no desire to fly the coop, has her eyes on New York City. She believes her ticket there will be a one-woman show based on a secret her grandmother told her on her deathbed, an idea that is met with hilarious resistance from the rest of the Nowak clan.
Amid all the discussion and arguments, Dudzick inserts some beautiful ideas about what it means to hold onto your faith or to your neighborhood and offers the suggestion that relaxing your grip on one or the other is maybe not the worst thing.
Horst is delightful as Clara, whose barbs at her children are always shot through with tough love. When she learns her son Jimmy has been bowling with a girl she disapproves of, in the most cringeworthy part of the play, she reacts in complete shock: “Are you on this world?” she says. “Don’t you know where bowling can lead?”
Fine performances also come from Puglisi, every inch the Catholic mama’s boy as Jimmy; from the earnest and agitated Taylor; and from Chi, who renders her character’s sisterly disgust in strikingly realistic tones.
To say there are lots of surprises in store for audiences is to vastly underestimate Dudzick’s talent. The surprises in this show, as cartoonish and completely unlikely as they are, drove the opening night audience to breathless hysterics.
So don’t fight it. Give in to “Miracle on South Division Street.” You’ll be glad you did.
3 stars (Out of 4)
What: “Miracle on South Division Street”
When: Through Dec. 8
Where: Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave.
Tickets: $35 to $39
Info: 829-7668 or www.kavinokytheatre.com