Tom Dudzick’s résumé doesn’t include a big Broadway smash, but as modern American playwrights go, he’s about as hot an item as you can find.
A Buffalo native and Nyack resident, Dudzick’s plays have consistently found homes in regional theaters around the country, and for the third time in five years and fourth time since 2003, Carol Max’s Curtain Call Theatre in Latham is staging another of his works. “Miracle on South Division Street” opens Friday and runs through June 22.
Phil Rice is directing the Curtain Call production, which stars Rie Lee as Clara Nowak, the mother of three adult children who begin to question her strong Catholic faith as the validity of a family legend unravels. The show’s world premiere was just three years ago at the Penguin Repertory Theatre in Stony Point, and it just recently finished up a long off-Broadway run at St. Luke’s Theatre in New York City, where it delighted audiences and drew a favorable review from The New York Times.
“That’s always in the back of my mind,” said Dudzick, referring to a Broadway success. “ ‘Ooh, wouldn’t that be nice.’ But I’m satisfied if they get done. I have 12 productions of ‘Miracle’ playing around the country right now, and that’s amazing. It started in a little off-Broadway theater in what was the basement of a church, and now it’s being done all over the country. I’m thrilled by its success, and I’m making a living, so I’m delighted.”
'Miracle on South Division Street'
WHERE: Curtain Call Theatre, 210 Old Loudon Road, Latham
WHEN: Opens 8 p.m. Friday; show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, through June 22.
HOW MUCH: $23
MORE INFO: 877-7529 or www.curtaincalltheatre.com
Like most of his writing, “Miracle on South Division Street” is based on a boyhood memory from his days growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Buffalo. In the play, the object of Clara’s affection is a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary, which happened to still be standing when Dudzick returned home for a visit a couple of years ago and prompted him to write the play. In Dudzick’s notes for the show, he wrote, “... amidst the rubble of urban blight something still stands, dare I say, ‘miraculously,’ ’’ referring to the statue.
Making up the Curtain Call cast along with Lie are Jennifer Bullington as Beverly, the eldest daughter, Rhiannon Antico as Ruth, the middle child, and Isaac Newberry as the young brother, Jimmy.
From factory to stage
Often called the “Catholic Neil Simon,” Dudzick didn’t set out to be a playwright. He practiced at the piano as a young boy and had dreams of becoming a cartoonist when he entered college at SUNY Fredonia in western New York.
“I went to college to stay out of Vietnam,” said Dudzick, 63. “At first I was a music major, and then I switched to fine arts. After graduation, I was working at a ketchup factory when a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to help him write a play. To me, that sounded better than working in a ketchup factory.”
Success, at least in the Buffalo area, came quickly for Dudzick.
“My friend had a restaurant, the Showboat, which actually was a riverboat sitting in the Niagara River, and I guess they figured they had enough dining rooms so they turned one of them into a theater,” remembered Dudzick. “We wrote this silly little musical, ‘Make Your Moves with Confidence,’ full of slapstick and interaction with the audience, and they loved it. That’s when I learned I also could perform because we also threw me into the show. It was really fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants theater.”
Dudzick’s friend’s theater troupe was also performing in three other dinner theaters in the Buffalo area, and Dudzick kept busy coming up with plays.
“I was making a living, I had a salary and I had a partner, so to me that was pretty serious,” said Dudzick. “I did it for six or seven years, and we had our own little dinner theater empire. But then the bright lights of New York City were too tempting. I couldn’t stay away. I had to go give it a shot.”
Dudzick’s original plan was to pursue both acting and writing.
“Then I saw what actors went through,” said Dudzick. “I don’t have what that takes. I don’t have the stamina, the drive. I figured I would just do the writing, and that way I’d be able to stay home in my pajamas.”
Write what you know
Dudzick worked at a bank in Manhattan and took a few other odd jobs while continuing to write.
“I was constantly writing during lunch hours, after work, before work: I was always working on something,” he said. “Then I had this Jewish girlfriend — I always wanted to take her home to meet my Catholic parents — and she got me an agent. She was very influential. She also introduced me to my wife. We’ve remained friends, and she was always looking out for me.”
The first play Dudzick’s girlfriend helped get produced was “Greetings,” a comedy about a young man who brings his Jewish atheist fiancée home on Christmas Eve to meet his parents. The play was a hit, first at a small theater in New Brunswick, N.J., and then off-Broadway at the John Houseman Theatre in New York. It was 1993.
“Originally it was a one-act play, but then I brought my brother with Down syndrome into the story and suddenly it wasn’t a one-act play,” said Dudzick. “Well, the son of a gun really caught on. The George Street Theatre in New Brunswick is a pretty big theater, and it did really well there and then to off-Broadway. By 1997 I was ready to take that really scary move. I said to myself, ‘I think I can leave my day job and depend on the royalties from the play.’ .”
Dudzick needn’t have worried. “Over the Tavern” was called one of the biggest grass-roots success in American regional theater history, and it spawned two more stories about the Pasinski family of Buffalo, “King O’ the Moon” and “The Last Mass at St. Casimir’s.” Both also became instant hits at regional theaters around the country.
“Over the Tavern” was based on Dudzick’s family, who also lived over a tavern, Big Joe Dudzick’s. Dudzick’s father was a 6-foot-11 former professional basketball player and a 1938 graduate of Canisius College, where, before they disallowed goaltending, he would just stand under the basket and swat away opponents’ shots.
“He did play professionally for a short time,” said Dudzick, whose father graduated from Canisius eight years before the National Basketball Association was born. “ ‘Some clowns down in Pennsylvania’ was all I could get out of him. But Canisius College was where he achieved his fame. He was 6 feet 11 inches back in the ’30s when no one was that tall.”
Curtain Call did “Over the Tavern” in 2009, and it was Rice who directed “King O’ the Moon” at Curtain Call in 2010. Max’s troupe also did “Greetings” back in 2003.
“I think his sense of family is very real,” Rice said of Dudzick’s work. “The humor is always very funny, but it’s also touching. It comes out of real situations. We can all relate to them. We see our own families, and that’s what makes his plays so popular and effective.”
“He offers a unique and humorous look into the American character, and I like how his plays really appeal to the audience,” said Max, who founded Curtain Call Theatre in 1999. “It’s that simple. Everyone can see themselves in his plays: People love watching what they can relate to, and they can certainly relate to themselves.”
Dudzick says his success doesn’t come as a surprise to him.
“I was always hoping and assuming that audiences would find my plays funny because I always found them funny,” he said. “And it’s not that I’m so fascinating. I’m just your average working guy, your average office worker and family man, writing about things people can relate to.”
He’s currently working on another play but doesn’t have much to say about it yet.
“I’m kicking around an idea, but it’s way in the infancy stage,” said Dudzick, who has a 21-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter. “I’ve always wanted to do a play about my own family, my immediate family, but there’s nothing really to write about. I told them, ‘you’re hurting my income.’ We all get along pretty well, and we’re well-adjusted. There’s nothing to say. There’s no conflict.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or email@example.com.