Poignant humor abounds in Syracuse Stage’s production of The Boys Next Door
By James MacKillop
Offering comfort brings its own risks. At Syracuse Stage, a feature of producing artistic director Timothy Bond-era scheduling, often remarked upon in this space, is that one offering each season should be “comfort food”: that is, easily accessible, uplifting and familiar. Last season the terrific production of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, a community theater staple, fit the bill perfectly. This year Tom Griffin’s The Boys Next Door offers treacle-baited traps for a director. In 1996 the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV-movie franchise enshrined Boys in that temple of sucrose. Most of the time director Bond resists temptation, but he also comes up with one of the most disarming love scenes Syracuse Stage has delivered in a long while.
From what Bond has told us, he would have taken to The Boys Next Door regardless of scheduling demands. When he arrived in town he said he preferred plays that related to problems in real life. This was when he also said he’d never want to produce Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats because it doesn’t refer to anything but itself.
Group homes for the, um, mentally challenged were a hot issue in the 1980s when Boys was written, and continue to be so. Three articles in the playbill address the question both nationally and locally. And the lobby displays artwork from current residences, both boys and girls. Good intentions alone, of course, do not a drama make.
What to call people in group homes is no small issue. The narrator of The Boys Next Door, Jack (Demetrios Troy), presumably a stand-in for playwright Griffin, addresses it early on. For all the smarmy political correctness of “mentally challenged,” it replaces far uglier choices like “retarded” and “dimwitted” that once appeared in conversation. To face up to the obvious, much of the general run of people do not wish to see the mentally challenged, much less live next to them. The challengeds’ unguarded outburst can be unsettling and, not to be insensitive, tiresome.
No saint, Jack has taken his job out of economic necessity, and his dialogue asserts he’s getting tired of the strain of dealing with patients who are never going to get better or be discharged. Director Bond and actor Troy have unwisely taken the edge off Jack’s displeasure at being stuck with such an exhausting job. In other productions Jack has been grumbly and sour in the first act. By making him more sympathetic to the patients and to the audience, he’s denied the longer arc to travel. We need for him to learn a big lesson when he sees the boys’ horror that he might be leaving.
Bond’s hand is steadier in deciding a more volatile director’s choice: how to control the tone of a comedy about the mentally challenged, which sounds wince-making on first hearing. Contemporary audiences could not bear to laugh at showy irrationality, the way medieval nobles were amused by their “fools.” What Bond does is to encourage us to see a little bit of ourselves in the four boys next door, underneath their mismatched clothes and loud obsessions. Their lack of mental where-with-all to avoid being shunned or duped is not really so different from our inability to attach a name to a face we have known for years or remember where we filed the deed to the house.
The four denizens of Jack’s house, somewhere in New England, suffer from different degrees of disability, as he explains. Their fates during more than two hours of action follow widely divergent paths, from the tragic to the fantastic. Two of them appear close to normal and could almost navigate the world by themselves, starting with the self-described nervous type, Arnold Wiggins (Michael Joseph Mitchell), a talkative obsessive with a failed sense of which clothes match which. Similarly, neat, articulate Barry Klemper (Samuel Taylor) tells us he’s a golf pro, which we’re prepared to believe until he starts offering lessons for 25 cents. Jack tells us additionally what we would not guess, that Barry is schizophrenic.
The two harder cases appear more childlike, seriously overweight Norman Bulansky (Sean Patrick Fawcett), addicted to doughnuts, and Lucien P. Smith (William Hall Jr.), who copes so poorly he tries to vacuum without plugging in the machine. Bond’s interpretation of the text differs from previous area productions in the time and attention given these characters. More often Arnold appears to be the dominant character because he is so insistent and speaks the first and last lines. What very likely led Bond to shift emphasis to Norman is the performance he was able to wrest from Fawcett, who qualifies for his Equity card in this appearance.
Jack tells us candidly that the patients, like the rest of us, long to develop personal relations with the opposite gender and also have all the usual sexual appetites, although the women are sterilized. With such an unpromising prelude, Norman dares to venture to a mixer dance, where he meets Sheila (Alanna Rogers, a recent Syracuse University Drama Department graduate), who cuts much the same silhouette as Norman. Deeply needful, both are clumsier than any of us can remember ourselves from nightmare adolescence. Bond’s control of the climactic scene shows him at his best. What could easily have been patronizing, comic or maudlin is astonishingly moving. You’ll never think of the gift of a key ring the same way again.
Bond takes an emotional risk of a different kind when Lucien, dressed up in a suit and a proud Spider-Man tie, has to testify at a hearing before severe Senator Clarke (Timothy Davis-Reed). As in the group home, Lucien understands no questions and responds in gibberish. The effect is excruciating. At this point actor William Hall Jr. breaks through the fourth wall in an articulate speech that might have been written by Arthur Miller. This character, he implores, with a brain somewhere between a 5-year-old and an oyster reminds of what we might have been. Hall took over this role less than a week before opening night when the man originally cast, Ellis Foster, died most unexpectedly during rehearsal.
Samuel Taylor, last seen here in Lookingglass Alice, delivers two characterizations, beginning with the slick, self-confident Barry, always bragging about his own and his father’s accomplishments. Like a good car salesman, he’s glib and smooth, even when we sense small hyperbole. When he shows up his father (Carey Eidel) turns out to be an unkempt, one-armed loser, completely indifferent to his son’s wants and needs. Reduced to catatonia, Taylor’s Barry resonates by not speaking.
Michael Joseph Mitchell’s Arnold, whom Jack tells us could almost make it on the outside, is only a step away from the fussbudgets and complainers we meet every day. He complains that every sensible rule is like suffering under the oppressions of the totalitarian regime in Russia (the date is 1987), even though he is willingly bullied into shining the large shoes of a man he seeks to impress. In a fantasy ending, like a touch of magic realism, he gets to find out if things would indeed be better in Moscow.
Music theater faculty member Marie Kemp is all but unrecognizable here. She turns up in three supporting roles, two contrasting ladies of advanced years and a tragically hard-case patient named Clara.
Jessica Ford’s costumes define character, especially for Barry’s derelict father and Arnold, the anti-fashion piece. Dawn Chiang’s lighting emphasizes the lowbudget, utilitarian ambiance of home.
Then again, the entire stage moves forward to enhance the intimacy of certain dialogues. Syracuse Stage’s The Boys Next Door might be intended as a crowd-pleaser, but it has merited the top efforts of the company.
This production runs through Nov. 6. See Times Table for information.