Young supervisor Jack (played by Tim Dowd) runs a group home for the mentally challenged somewhere in New England, thus “next door,” and, frankly, he’s getting tired of it. Boys allows us to get to know four of Jack’s charges, people who have no expectation of improving their status or of being discharged. The underlying tension is how the four principals are going to cope as Jack prepares to leave his responsibilities and move on to another job.
At first glance a comedy about the mentally challenged sounds like a breach of good taste, but playwright Griffin and director Sharee Lemos take on this risk with grace. Boys refutes the critical wisdom that comedy is fundamentally the desire to inflict pain. Instead, the play’s humor might allow us to see that the “Boys” are obsessive and repetitive, prone to wear mismatched plaids and high-water pants. Even as the four characters amuse us, we are invited to see a person under the shell who is a bit frustrated not to have the wherewithal to solve the problem, or to avoid being duped or shunned. Much like many of us in the audience, that is. Even without researching the question, we can see that caretaker Jack is an autobiographical representation of author Griffin, who looks back on his former charges with regret and love.
The Boys Next Door keeps being performed (it was an off-Broadway hit 20 years ago, and later adapted as a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV-movie in 1996) because it’s a gift to talented character actors. Matinee-idol-handsome Joe Pierce is usually seen as a leading man (once impersonating John Barrymore), but as the irritable and irritating Arnold Wiggins, self-described as a “nervous type,” Pierce is almost unrecognizable. He loudly compares every application of house rules to the authoritarianism of Russia and hatches an obsession about going there to see if things would be better.
Contrasting with him is the portly, hirsute Philip A. Brady as Norman Bulansky, whose obsessions are doughnuts, a heavy keychain for his belt, and the breathless expletive, “Oh boy!” Coached to be polite, Brady’s Norman mindlessly repeats a greeting that introduces himself and asks visitors to be welcome. More social than the others, Norman risks rejection by attending dances where he is introduced to Sheila (Pamela Hipius), who finds him charming.
More complex emotions define Jack’s two other boys, the childlike Lucien P. Smith (Stephfond Brunson) and the emotionally damaged Barry Klemper (Alan D. Stillman). Except that he thinks he could make big bucks as a golf pro, Barry initially looks as though he doesn’t belong in the group. That is, until we witness his shattering encounter with his unwittingly cruel father (Ned Roulston), who gracelessly snitches milk from the refrigerator and drinks from the bottle. In contrast, severely retarded Lucien cannot navigate the alphabet and looks like the worst case. Unexpectedly, Brunson breaks out of character and speaks through the fourth wall about the character he plays in an articulate voice worthy of a speech in an Arthur Miller play. For Brunson, Syracuse’s answer to Cab Calloway, and much in demand as a light comedian, it’s one of his best moments ever.
The heartfelt emotions of The Boys Next Door have wide appeal. A busload of group home residents attended a preview performance, and they loved it.
This production runs through March 28. See Times Table for information.