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Boy Crazy? 

Theater Review: The Boys Next Door

Published July 9, 2003 at 4:00 a.m.

They never change," says Jack, the social worker who's taking care of The Boys Next Door. Since the "boys" are all developmentally disabled adults, his assessment is pretty accurate -- and as a dramatic premise, not too promising. We like to see characters undergo some kind of change in the course of a play, even if they wind up exactly where they started.

Yet the very unchangeability of these men becomes one of the strengths of Tom Griffin's 1986 play, which Peter Harrigan has directed for St. Michael's Playhouse. The four men under Jack's supervision are, for better or worse, stuck. And the actors playing them give performances so deeply felt, so specific, that within highly limited parameters they let us see and understand entire lives. The boys deliver an evening of inspired ensemble acting.

That said, the script has problems. And most of them occur when Griffin shifts focus away from the men themselves to the world around them. When characters get too predictable there, we have a right to get restless.

Arnold Wiggins, Lucien P. Smith, Norman Bulansky and Barry Klemper share a suburban apartment (a knowingly detailed set by John Paul Devlin) where Jack pays regular visits. We meet Arnold first. Articulate, intense, he's given to making peremptory declarations: "A, take it, or B, leave it!" As soon as something goes awry, though, he freaks. Unsure of how many boxes of Wheaties to buy at the supermarket, he carries home several months' worth; worried about a telltale wet mark on his trousers, he drenches his pant legs completely so no one will detect the spot. Looking preternaturally tall and gaunt, Mark Nash is terrific in the role -- a kind of Ichabod Crane on speed.

Barry, a brilliant, handsome schizophrenic, is so convincing in his obsessions that he can dupe unsuspecting people -- and himself -- into believing he knows what he's talking about. His latest delusion is that he is a golf pro, but he gets so bogged down in tangential details, like the pros and cons of golf carts, that the few students he attracts quickly flee. John Gardiner, in a carefully modulated performance, makes Barry's tightly wired intelligence palpable. The revelation of his abusive father -- played by John D. Alexander -- haunts him. It seems like a gratuitous plot detail, but Gardiner's anguish in its wake is very affecting.

Norman -- plump, anxious, with a high-pitched voice and halting laugh -- is prone to panic. Just doing the dishes can become a major project: "No eggs! No cheese! Lemonade is illegal!" he declares when faced with suds-proof foods. But despite his near-constant state of confusion, Norman is also doggedly determined, so much so that he's able to overcome his shyness and make a tentative romantic connection with Sheila, a similarly disabled young woman played sweetly by Kelly Veronica Lambert.

Ross Williams' pinched whininess as Norman may initially recall Julia Sweeney's androgynous Pat from "Saturday Night Live," but his character is an original, amazingly thorough creation -- I had to check the photos in the lobby to see where Norman ended and the actor began. Particularly impressive is the wide range of meaning he conveys in Norman's oft-repeated mantras "Welcome to my home!" "Oh, boy!" and "Free donuts!"-- an expression of pure joy which, when repeated in a subsequent scene, comes out as a wail of defeat.

As Lucien, Kevin Maurice Butler has an even smaller vocabulary to work with; though Lucien's most treasured possession is his library card, he is barely able to get through his ABCs. Butler makes an indelible impression, though, vividly conveying Lucien's gentleness with his roommates and his fears as he prepares to appear before a State Senate committee. "Yourself just ain't ready yet," he tells Jack with unconscious eloquence.

It seems unbelievable that Lucien would be forced to go through the ordeal of a Senate interrogation -- apparently so funding doesn't get taken away. But the scene does provide the context for one of several moments in which the playwright lets the disabled characters live out impossible dreams. During a dance party, Norman becomes Fred Astaire to Sheila's Ginger. Arnold, who wants to flee to Russia, hears Russian destinations announced over the P.A. system at the local train station. And at the senate hearing, Lucien breaks out into a spotlight of his own, and speaks -- with conscious eloquence this time -- about what it feels like to be trapped in a prison of disability. "I will not go away. I will not wither to the size of the cage." Butler's quiet defiance in this speech is powerfully moving.

But not all of Griffin's interruptions work as well. In fact, not one of the ancillary "sane" characters -- Barry's brutal father, Arnold's boss at the movie theater where he cleans the bathrooms, the deaf widow Barry converses with, the state senator for whom Lucien testifies -- seems like anything more than a diversion. (The staging, which introduces these scenes with fuzzy slide projections, doesn't help.) And, unfortunately, the same goes for Jack.

Jack, it seems, is meant to serve as a kind of link between us putatively "normal" observers in the audience and the dysfunctional household onstage; he steps out of the action from time to time to talk about his charges and to tell us about his own steadily worsening case of burnout. Patrick Flanagan has a nice ease in the role; he's a likeable, easy-going presence. But, through no fault of Flanagan's, Jack is finally not a very interesting guy. Okay, he's burnt out, his ex-wife's still a fox, fine - let's get back to Arnold and Norman.

Plus, Jack's pretty lousy at his job. At one point he leaves Barry alone with his abusive father, an irresponsible move that seems merely an excuse to advance the plot; maybe the lapse in judgment is supposed to be an indication of why it's time for him to quit, but for a social worker to knowingly put a client at risk seems patently unbelievable, burnout or no burnout. And when Jack acts as a kind of interpreter between "us" and "them," it's borderline offensive.

During his first monologue, for instance, the four men freeze as Jack explains their particular quirks. I don't know if the freeze was the playwright's choice or the director's, but it feels as if Jack thinks of these human beings as exhibits he has to explain. And then there are his lame attempts to poke fun at the men, with such conversational ploys as, "When last we tuned into Planet Xenon...." I'm sure black humor is often the only recourse for mental-health professionals, but Jack's wisecracks seem largely ineffective, as a means of either getting through or getting laughs.

But then he's up against some fierce competition; the four guys we care about most are often genuinely, heartbreakingly funny. And perhaps Jack's obtuseness is the point. He says he's leaving because these men will never change: "They'll never not need me." Perhaps. Certainly they'll never stop hoping, and they'll never get what they want, except in the tiniest of increments. But Jack's trapped, too. He's moving on to a job as a travel agent: arranging trips for people who hope that a vacation will lead to some kind of life-altering adventure -- but return to an existence that is pretty much the same.

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David Warner


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