REVIEW: THE BOYS NEXT DOOR Tackles Difficult Material With Heart, Laughs

Published on April 15, 2015 by   ·   No Comments

Boys 02(Be warned: I’m sure there are spoilers ahead.  If you worry about that kind of thing, go see the show and then come back and see if you agree with what I wrote.  And if you don’t…well, then I guess it’s time for you to think about your life choices.  Or think about starting your own blog.  Either way, I’ve done my due diligence regarding spoilers.  Enjoy.)

If you’re heavily invested in political correctness, The Boys Next Door, playing now through April 25 at the Fire Hall Theatre, will probably make you uncomfortable.  The show deals with 4 men who have different levels of disability and mental illness and the man who helps take care of them.  It was written in the late 1980s, and the way we talk about developmental disabilities has changed; more than once, the word “retarded” is used and though it isn’t said in a mocking Boys 03context, the term itself is dated enough and fraught with enough social context to make most average theatre-goers at least a little uneasy. But getting comfortable, or at least familiar, with that uneasiness is one of the levels on which this show operates.

It shows us the everyday lives and relationships of four men who belong to a segment of society that most people do their best to push out of their conscious thought.  Disabilities make many of us uncomfortable; when we encounter someone with disabilities, we aren’t always sure how to act, what to say.  It’s hard for us to recalibrate ourselves and our communication.  Sometimes we feel pity, or we say a silent prayer that we don’t have to shoulder that burden.  This is not unique to developmental disabilities; as a culture, anything that disturbs our smooth, natural order is to be viewed with suspicion and impatience for messing up the rhythm at best, disgust and scorn at worst.

Boys 05The Boys Next Door gives us a glimpse into the lives of 4 individuals: Arnold (Jerry Wehry), a self-described “nervous” personality who obsesses over every decision and situation; Norman Bulansky (Patrick DeMars), a donut shop worker who struggles with his weight, and cannot be without his precious ring of keys; Lucien (T.J. Beyer), the most profoundly handicapped of the group, who is preparing for a hearing before the state senate to determine the future of his disability benefits by learning the ABC song and picking out a Spiderman tie; and Barry (Frank Sikich), a mentally ill man with a history of institutionalization who has decided that he should give golf lessons to his fellow residents – for the right fee, of course.  Our tour guide through the lives of these men is Jack Palmer (Jared Fladeland), a caring but increasingly weary divorcee who is contemplating a career move away from his current life, and away from his four charges.

Fladeland puts some interesting dynamics into Jack’s character, but as a narrator he exists more as a plot device to help us get to know Arnold, Lucien, Norman, and Barry.  When he talks about seeing his ex-wife or thinking about getting a new job, there isn’t much investment for the audience; his monologues are largely informational and don’t carry the emotional weight given to the other characters.

Boys 01Each of the other main characters gets their moment to shine. Arnold’s constant misinterpretations and confusion of words brings small doses of humor throughout, but his confrontation with Jack after Jack explains to the group that he’s gotten a new job gives him a greater depth of character and is a nice ending to the show (along with a small magical moment involving the imaginary train to Russia that Arnold has been waiting for).

Beyer has a pretty stiff acting challenge: playing Lucien in a way that conveys the depth of his disability without turning into a cliche or something offensive.  I felt he tackled this challenge admirably enough, and Lucien, while severely challenged, also gains a likable goofiness that makes the moment in front of Senator Clark (Louie Babcock) that much more poignant.  When Beyer steps out of his character to deliver Lucien’s internal monologue about how it feels to live inside his head, the transformation is smooth and the moment is one of the best of the show.

Disco BallDeMars’ Norman is the soft squishy center of the show, and not just because of his obsession with donuts.  Norman is sweet on fellow resident Sheila (Alivia Holkesvig), and their flirtation at the group home’s weekly social dances will melt your heart.  The casting is a little odd in that Holkesvig is clearly much younger than DeMars, but both play their romance with so much earnestness and excitement that this oddity can mostly be forgiven.  Even when Sheila’s unwelcoming friend Clara (Amy Driscoll)  attempts to throw a wrench in the works, love wins out.

Barry is a bit of a schemer and Sikich gives him just enough slickness paired with obvious motive to keep him funny and entertaining.  His welcoming banter to a visiting neighbor (Theresa Knox) is just a thinly veiled attempt to work another potential client for golf lessons.  Later, after a confrontation with his father (Rob Howard), Barry’s condition takes a very serious turn; there isn’t a lot to foreshadow this development and it is a bit incongruous with how Barry is presented up to that point, but Sikich handles the progression capably enough.

Boys 04There are a lot of laughs in this show, if you allow yourself to give in to them. Again, because of the subject matter and the disabilities of the characters presented, some people will feel uncomfortable and want to hold back.  But to get a little bit elementary school on your asses, Tom Griffin’s script is definitely laughing with these characters, not at them.  In all of the scenes, we can see reflections of our own lives, our own concerns, and our own fears.  We all worry about making decisions and if we’re going to choose the right option; in Arnold’s case, his fear of making the wrong decision leads to him buying 9 boxes of Wheaties, 6 heads of lettuce, and a bag of charcoal briquettes.  Norman and Sheila are just looking for someone to love and support them, but they are able to explore their relationship without all of the innuendo and maneuvering that happens so often in modern relationships.  This show has a lot of heart, and it never makes any of the boys into the butt of the joke.  If you can get over your inhibitions and allow yourself to get to know these men, you can laugh and maybe learn a thing or two.

Just not about golf – Barry really is a terrible instructor.

The Boys Next Doors runs at 7:30 pm Thursday – Saturday for the next two weeks: April 16-18 and 23 – 25.  There is also a 2 pm matinee on Sunday April 19.  Tickets are $15 for Adults, $12 for Students/Seniors/Military.

(Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I did audition for this show.  I wasn’t cast – obvi – but I don’t think it influenced my review of the show at all.  I went to auditions on a whim and I long ago realized I was no Meryl Streep.  The boys were great!)

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