A Family Dynamic 

Family, food and fun highlight visits to grandmother's house in the latest at Hanover Tavern.

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In "Over the River and Through the Woods," young marketing executive Nicky Cristano has two sets of Italian grandparents who live by the motto "tango familia," or roughly, "family is everything." At the beginning of this frequently hilarious show, Nicky (Christopher Clawson) tries to make a potentially heartbreaking announcement to them on one of his weekly sojourns from Manhattan to Hoboken, N.J, for Sunday dinner. But between their rambling banter, misplaced concern and persistent offers of food, he barely has a chance to get a word in edgewise.

When he is finally able to tell them that he's thinking of moving to Seattle, the result could be relentlessly broad comedy and schmaltzy sentimentalism as you'd expect in the typical sitcom. But thanks to a nicely modulated script by Joe Dipietro and a skillful cast directed by Bruce Miller, the latest offering by the Barksdale Theatre at Hanover Tavern remains warmly funny and disarmingly authentic nearly all the way to the end. The pace flags late in the show with a conclusion that may seem a bit anticlimactic. But, in going with a realistic wrap-up, Dipietro makes the most surprising choice of all.

The boyish Clawson makes an endearing Nicky, never less than lovable, even when he is fighting for breath beneath the smothering love of his grandparents. He is supported by some top-notch talent. In particular, Matthew Costello brings remarkable depth to his portrayal of Grampa Nunzio, who is hesitant to play the trump card in the grandparents' bid to get Nicky to stay. Jacqueline Jones portrays the food-obsessed Gramma Aida with a breezy good humor that blossoms into true wisdom during the second act. The script offers David Bridgewater several opportunities to chew the scenery as Aida's husband, Frank, but he restrains himself admirably. Jolene Carroll is given the least to work with as Nunzio's wife, Emma, but she is a warm and welcome presence onstage nonetheless.

Rounding out the cast is the splendid Stephanie Dray as Caitlin, a fetching single girl recruited by Emma to entice Nicky into staying. Dray infuses the potentially thankless role with unexpected nuance. While Terrie Power's spacious scenic design looks great, it forces some important scenes to happen tucked into a corner of the stage. Bennett Fidlow's lighting design provides key accents, giving each character at least one moment in the spotlight. Even if the ending is less than satisfying, "Over the River and Through the Woods" is a delightful trip to take. S

"Over the River and Through the Woods" is playing at the Barksdale Theatre at Hanover Tavern on Route 301 in Hanover Thursday to Saturday nights through Jan. 7 with selected Sunday matinees. Tickets are $34-$38. Call 282-2620 for details.

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