I recently had the opportunity to attend the production of The Boys Next Door at the Whitmore-Lindley theater, presented by Lief Productions. For those unfamiliar with the show, this is definitely an actor’s piece. The play, written by Tom Griffin, is about four mentally handicapped men attempting to live together and with the world around them, which includes Jack, their appointed supervisor who visits from time to time. Just so that there’s no confusion, let me say now that I don’t like this play, but, overall, I enjoyed myself. This was a perfect example of what a good production can do with average material.
If you’ve never been to the Whitmore-Lindley theater, realize now that the spaces provided are small. To be absolutely candid, I sat down in the wrong theater, never guessing there were two spaces adequate for productions in such a small building. Kudos to Shaun Patrick Tubbs for maximizing the space with his set design, however, you will feel claustrophobic, without a doubt. Moreover, the heat in the theater can become quite oppressive, so dress lightly. Though, this does add to the general ambiance of the primary set, which is inside the apartment of the four main characters. Settings outside the apartment are played downstage, melding partially with the apartment set upstage. The tight space and the mixing of sets caused a few problems for the actors, however, since they were responsible for the set changes during blackouts. In one late scene, Jack visits one of the men in an institution. As he circled the bed, delivering his monologue, he kept getting distracted by a prop left on the ground in a previous scene, in a different set. Jack eventually picked it up and placed it on a table so he wouldn’t trample it. In another scene, a sign used to signify a library setting is hung up on a wall in the apartment, but the actors neglected to remove it for subsequent scenes, forcing another actor to deal with it later to get to a light switch. Thankfully, the acting and the direction are strong enough to distract from these shortcomings.
Director Frank Metayer’s wealth of experience definitely shines through in every performance here. Every movement and subtle nuance felt natural, which is paramount when your actors play mentally challenged characters. Not only does he keep his actors from degenerating into stereotypical caricatures, each character manages to be unique and memorable and dignified in their own way. The play did run about half an hour longer than I think it should have, however, which could easily be resolved with quicker pacing, especially in Act 2. In the opening scene we watch Lucien marvel at paintings for an interminable amount of time and there are a few scenes that didn’t quite reach the manic tempo that was called for.
While the acting on the whole is genuinely enjoyable, a few actors stand out, both positively and negatively, starting with Arnold, played by Stan Rush. He delivers his lines with the finely honed timing of a master comedian who doesn’t know what he’s saying is funny. His ability to convey the fog behind his eyes to the audience during his soliloquies was most impressive.
Norman, played by Kaore Bonell, was a delight to watch. He does not act so much as a mentally immature man as he channels one. His explosions of giddiness or anger are not just perfectly timed; they are expected by the audience.
Probably the most remarkable display of mental retardation comes from Shaun Patrick Tubbs. He plays Lucien, who is the most handicapped of all the leads. In my younger days, I had worked with residents of convalescent homes and mental institutions. Watching Lucien conjured startling flashbacks so vivid, I could smell the sterile hallways all over again. With that said, I was let down when Lucien comes out of his handicap to address the audience. There was a missed opportunity to deliver a broader range of emotions rather than just a stiff cautionary tale.
I was disappointed with Barry, played by Aaron Merken. His early scenes are almost forgettable, lacking any kind of dramatic or comedic impetus. His later scenes are a travesty. During his speech about the chocolates being thrown away, he delivers the lines on-the-nose, not realizing he’s talking about himself and his feelings of abandonment. Sadly, his catatonic states were just not believable, lacking the “thousand-yard stare” required.
As I said earlier, I don’t like this play. There are extraneous scenes, many jokes are forced, and there is absolutely nothing that makes me care about the characters. Despite those shortcomings in the material, this production of The Boys Next Door has taken mediocre material and turned it into something marvelous and not to be missed. Catch the last two shows at 8 PM on Nov. 11 and 12.