This review of Tom Griffin's The Boys Next Door at Studio Theatre Long Island was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
The Boys Next Door
Written by Tom Griffin
Directed by Marian Waller
Studio Theatre Long Island
141 South Wellwood Avenue
Lindenhurst, New York 11757
The Boys Next Door, written by Tom Griffin, premiered in June 1986 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey and opened Off-Broadway at the Lamb's Theatre on November 23, 1987. It deals with four men (Norman, Lucien, Arnold & Barry) with varying mental disabilities who live in a group home under the supervision of Jack Palmer, an earnest, well-meaning, but increasingly "burned out," young social worker. Norman Bulansky, one of the residents, works in a doughnut shop and has gained 17 pounds eating left-over donuts the staff there collects for him. He is very proud and possessive of a large ring of keys. Norman's girlfriend Sheila (no Skinny Minnie herself) is also obsessed with Norman's prized keys and keeps asking for them. Lucien P. Smith, an African-American who has the mind of a five-year-old, pretends he can read and lugs around hard-covered books he has checked out of the library. This creates a crisis for Lucien because he is accused of faking his mental condition, which puts him at risk of losing his disability funds. He is forced to testify at a State Senate Hearing (which he refers to as the "State Sneck"). Arnold Wiggins works at a movie theater as a janitor. He tends to be very obsessive compulsive. He is hyperactive and talks constantly. He is bullied by co-workers and tricked into buying items he does not need when shopping at the local King Kullen grocery store. When angry or scared, he repeats the word "nyet" (meaning no in Russian) and threatens to run away to Russia. Finally, there is Barry Klemper, a good-looking, smooth-talking young man with schizophrenia who fancies himself a pro golfer. He offers to give golf lessons to people for $1.13 an hour but gets upset when all his students are only interested in learning to play golf. Barry appears normal but the stress of being brought up by his verbally and physically abusive father may have triggered his schizophrenia in the first place. The play takes place over roughly a two-month period and consists of brief vignettes regarding the lives of the featured characters.
You may wonder whether it is politically correct to laugh at the foibles, arguments, and tense situations brought about as a result of the mental disabilities and illnesses of the various characters portrayed in this play. There will be moments where you will want to laugh and others that will make you cry. Both reactions are appropriate since the residents of this group home are simply being who they are. Tragic? Yes, but also sometimes funny. While you may feel sorry for them, you cannot deny that what they sometimes say is quite hilarious, such as when Norman says, "It's so loud in here, I need sunglasses." Some moments are poignant such as when Lucien, preparing for his State Senate Hearing, references the fact that he is "not yet ready" (with the implication being a self-recognition by Lucien that given his limited mental capacity, he is not yet ready to take on such a task). Other arguments occur over what animal hand puppets they each will wear at a "surprise" party and whether people will still visit them if Arnold has taken away the "Welcome" mat, There are also some comical moments when Norman tries to invite Sheila to "his pad" and then uses a kitchen cooking timer to let them know when it's 9 p.m. (the result is that Sheila leaves after 9 minutes instead of an hour and a half). Similarly, at a Community Center Dance, Arnold tries to cover up the fact he has peed on himself by splashing water all over his pants, blaming it on "a sink explosion." Another funny situation is when a neighbor visits looking for a run-a-way hamster they killed thinking it was a rat. In the midst of being friendly, they invade her personal space making her feel quite uncomfortable.
The greatest tragedy in this play involves the visit by Barry's abusive father, which Jack opposed. The father asked Jack to leave him alone with his son and Jack complied. Upset that Barry was not speaking to him, his father started beating him with his hat instead of his hands (an inexplicable and cowardly directorial choice by Marian Waller). Barry cried out, "please don't hit me" and only after his father left, did Barry say, "Dad, I'm a golf pro now!" This was a very moving moment in the play. The visit by his father causes Barry to have a phychotic break resulting in his forced institutionalization. Jack Palmer's ex-wife didn't fully understand his job or that the residents under his care would always need supervision. When Jack leaves to take a job as a travel agent, the playwright Tom Griffin does a great job of showing the trauma such a change has on individuals who have come to find security in their routines. All the residents are acutely aware of their sometimes deficient "behavior patterns." Jack tries to assure the group that someone else will come to get to know them as he has. Arnold's insightful response is to tell Jack that he "has better behavior patterns than most."
The Boys Next Door features a top-notch ensemble cast. All of the actors were perfectly suited for their roles and all did an exceptional job. Evan Donnellan, as Jack Palmer, showed both the concern he had for those under his supervision as well as the frustration any normal human being might feel dealing with these residents on a day-to-day basis. W. Gordon Innes played the hateful Mr. Klemper with great believability. Kevin Kelly hit a home-run portraying the bravado and vulnerability of Barry Klemper, his son. Scott Earle never strayed out of character as Arnold, the obsessive compulsive chatterbox, and Kevin Hansen was similarly on target in his portrayal of Norman. Nathaniel Portier was so in character as Lucien that a scene was added (or left in) where Lucien spoke to the audience without exhibiting any mental disability. It is unknown why the playwright chose to break the 4th wall in this particular instance but it did highlight what an amazing actor Nathaniel Portier is. Carrie Heffernan did a fine job as Sheila, Norman's girlfriend. Ginger Dalton (Mrs. Fremus, Mrs. Warren & Clara) and John Gilchrist (Mr. Hedges, Mr. Corbin & The Senator) also carried their weight and added to the success of this production.
The Boys Next Door will be playing at Studio Theatre Long Island Thursday-Saturday, June 2-4, 2016 at 8:00 p.m. and on Friday-Saturday, June 10-11, 2016 at 8:00 p.m. There will also be two matinee performances at 2:30 p.m. on Sundays, June 5 & 12, 2016. Tickets cost $25.00 each and can be purchased at https://www.studiotheatreli.com/ For more information, call 631-226-8400. Seeing this well-written play with its compelling performances may leave you depressed regarding the situation of the mentally challenged characters, which is unlikely to get any better. On the other hand, you may leave the show upbeat and optimistic about how you can change your own life for the better, since "but for the Grace of God," you might have been born into their life and circumstances. The Boys Next Door are just trying to live their lives the best they know how with a "little help from their friends." Experience Their Journey!