Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, February 2009
Tom Griffin, the author of The Boys Next Door bills himself as an actor and a playwright. I have never seen him act, but based on this script he has a ways to go before he can call himself a playwright. It feels like Griffin wrote this show as a series of witty little audition scenes for himself, and I am sure that many, many actors have found them useful in that way. What they don’t do is hang together as a play.
That being said, Griffin has created memorable and accessible characters, which is a neat trick since most of them are mentally challenged. The Boys Next Door is set in a group home for mentally disabled men somewhere in New England. Arnold Wiggins (Ted Phelps), Lucien P. Smith (Jean-Remy Monnay, Norman Bulansky (Kevin Wixsom), and Barry Klemper (Devin James Leonard) live together, and their apartment, along with many others, is overseen by well-meaning but burnt-out social worker, Jack Palmer (Neal Berntson).
They are not “boys” – Barry, the youngest, is 21 – but grown men, all of whom hold down jobs and cope with life to the best of their abilities – which are varied. Griffin does a good job of writing them with dignity as well as comedy, and director Paul Murphy has assembled a dream cast of fine performers who bring these men, and their world, vividly to life.
The play is a series of scenes – some very, very short and others more sustained. There is not really a plot, things happen and things change, but nothing is resolved. Both the first and second acts end abruptly – the house lights come up and you think, “Gee, I guess its over” but the two and a half hours certainly don’t drag.
Among the things that occur:
* Barry’s father (Tracy Trimm), who he hasn’t seen in nearly a decade, pays a visit
* Norman makes progress in his relationship with his mentally challenged girlfriend, Sheila (Jody Kordana)
* Lucien appears before a State Senate subcommittee (embodied by Lael Locke) who decide whether or not he is able to be mainstreamed back into society
* Arnold packs up the apartment’s throw rugs and sets off for Russia
* Jack finds a new job and is able to “retire” from caring for the “boys”
It is not easy for these men to relate to other people, but they clearly care for each other and their neighbors – both the able and the disabled. Spending time with them, in their world, is a pleasure.
Murphy has helped each actor create a fully-rounded character, and while all five leads are good, Wixsom and Monnay really stand out as Norman and Lucien, the two most severely challenged of the group. Wixsom plays Norman as a wide-eyed and simple man who is kind and has a clear sense of fair play and justice. Norman’s part-time job is at Dunkin Donuts and he gets to bring home the broken and stale baked goods every day, which leads to some good donut moments throughout the play.
Monnay helps us connect with Lucien who is not only mentally challenged but emotionally damaged after a lifetime of trying to cope with a world he barely understands. You remember how the Grinch “puzzled and puzzled ‘till his puzzler was sore”? Well, Lucien finds everyday ideas and occurrences just that bewildering, and his puzzler is very sore indeed. At one point Griffin allows Lucien to speak as a “normal” person and tell us about how frightening and confusing it is to live inside his mind.
Arnold is an obsessive-compulsive in a way many of us will find familiar, except that his disabilities render him not quite able to cope. He knows that something is wrong when he comes home from the supermarket with nine boxes of Wheaties, five heads of lettuce, a quart of milk and a sack of charcoal briquettes, but he can’t figure out what. Phelps is terribly, terribly funny as he plays Arnold’s nervous tics and incessant chatter, talking his way through each challenge he encounters until a convoluted answer finally tumbles to the fore.
Barry is a tough part to play and Leonard is a young and inexperienced actor. He handles some of his more difficult and emotional scenes better than his glib, seemingly “normal” ones leaving us with little idea of what really lies beneath Barry’s troubles.
Berntson plays Jack so affable and normal that he’s boring. Or perhaps that’s the way the character is written. Griffin often has Jack break the fourth wall and address the audience directly, narrating the action or giving us some exposition. This is a man in a very stressful job who is supposed to be near his breaking point, and Berntson just looks cheerful and happy to me.
Kordana gives a funny and touching performance as Sheila, Norman’s girl. Griffin does touch lightly upon the matter of sexual desire amongst the mentally challenged, something that is as natural to them as it is to the rest of us, in ways that are thought-provoking but innocuous. Norman and Sheila are clearly attracted to each other, and seem to be a well-matched couple. Norman speaks frequently of their plans to marry and have “one baby boy and one baby girl” but doesn’t mention them wanting to touch or kiss, which they undoubtedly do.
Roseann Cane, Paul Leyden, and Locke round out the “boys” neighborhood as various characters. Cane plays it straight as next door neighbor, Mrs. Warren, but her turn as Clara, a monosyllabic new resident in Sheila’s apartment, is really funny. Leyden plays one of Barry’s hapless golf pupils and Arnold’s bewildered boss at the local movie theatre.
Trimm has the unenviable job of playing the one true villain in this play, and also the only physically disabled person. Clearly Mr. Klemper’s maltreatment of Barry has played a major role in his mental instability – a fact that he can neither understand nor accept. As with Barry, Griffin doesn’t tell us enough about the father. How did he come to be disabled, how did that effect his relationship with his wife and son? But Trimm does the best he can with the poorly drawn character he is given.
Bill Visscher has designed a really nice, flexible set, but the scene changes bothered me. Often, even when the next scene took place on a different part of the stage, we had to wait in the half light until the entire stage was prepared for future scenes. I wished that we could have just watched the scene down right while up center was being dressed. I am always a fan of keeping the action flowing smoothly rather than cutting it up with dragged out scene changes.
Joanne Maurer has done her usual excellent job with the costumes.
Overall, this is one of the finest productions Ghent has mounted in a long time, and it is well worth seeing despite the disjointed script. This is community theatre at it best – home grown, affordable, and entertaining.
The Ghent Playhouse production of The Boys Next Door opens January 23rd and runs for three weekends, through February 8th.Performances are Friday-Saturday at 8:00 and Sunday at 2:00. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for children old enough to understand about mental disabilities. All seats are reserved, and prices are $12.00 for members and $15.00 for non-members. The Ghent Playhouse is located just off Route 66 in the middle of Ghent, NY. For more information and/or reservations call (518) 392-6264.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009