Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Boys Next Door (Porthouse Theatre-KSU)

A touching ‘THE BOYS NEXT DOOR’ at Porthouse

Tom Griffin's ‘THE BOYS NEXT DOOR,’ now on stage at Porthouse Theatre, is the kind of play that in the wrong hands could become an emotional disaster. The story of four developmentally disabled men living in a communal apartment, under the supervision of a social worker, walks the fine line between drama and comedy. If it is presented as a farce, a potentially rewarding experience becomes a mockery.

In the play we meet the men who are living under the supervision of an earnest, but increasingly "burned out" young social worker named Jack. Norman, who works in a doughnut shop and is unable to resist the lure of the sweet pastries, takes great pride in the huge bundle of keys which dangles from his waist; Lucien P. Smith has the mind of a 5-year-old, but imagines that he is able to read and comprehend the weighty books he lugs about; Arnold is the hyperactive ringleader and compulsive chatterer, who suffers from deep-seated insecurities and a persecution complex; while Barry, a schizophrenic who is devastated by the rejection of his brutal father, fantasizes that he is a golf pro. These four, as is true of all of us, want only to love and laugh and find some meaning and purpose in life.

When it opened off-Broadway the production received positive reviews. Written commentaries stated that the play "hits squarely on the truth of life,” that it was “the most unusual and one of the most rewarding plays in Town” and that it was “a sensitive play that can be funny and touching at the same time." In spite of this, the show didn’t garner the crowds it should have. It was felt the reason was that many were nervous about laughing at the mentally challenged or couldn’t believe that someone could write a play about these people which didn’t mock them. I was not among the doubters and found the show then and now to be both a delightful and rewarding experience.

"Boys" is particularly challenging for the performers and director as they work to present the characters as human beings rather than as stereotypes. There is a fine line between laughing with and laughing at that must never be crossed. Even more, there are moments of loving tenderness juxtaposed with just plain silliness that test the actors’ and director’s adaptability and concentration.

Porthouse Theatre’s fine production, under the direction of John Woodson, is right on course. Under his guidance the excellent cast has found a way to walk the tight-rope that allows for empathy without ridiculing the plight of the intellectually and psychologically impaired.

The ensemble cast is superb. Brian Zoldessy develops a high-tensed Arnold that we can laugh with, not at. The character’s hyper-hysteria is made endearing with a consistent and creative character development.

Hollis Hayden, Jr.’s Lucien P. Smith becomes an adult-child whose very essence makes for heart-ripping reality. This is a finely tuned performance. I defy anyone not to be touched by the character’s presentation before a Senate committee that is attempting to force him into being something he is not.

Church Richie gives an award winning performance as the donut desiring Norman. Richie’s scenes with the wonderful Megan Elk, portraying Sheila, the love of Norman’s life, are amusing, believable and tender.

Andrew Cruse so well portrays Barry one wonders early in the play why he is in the group home. It is only after we are exposed to the rejection by his feared, yet revered father’s visit that we truly gain understanding. The father-son scene is emotionally wrenching.

Michael Anderson has the difficult role of being the rational character in the play. Rational from the standpoint of being mentally and psychologically normal, but in reality searching for who he really is after suffering a marital tragedy. Anderson is excellent, especially in the final scene when the effects of leaving his irritating yet lovable “guys” becomes a reality.

Ben Needham’s set design sometimes leads to place confusion as areas flow together but that is aided by Paul Denayer’s lighting which often helps clarify. Chaela Schmidt’s costumes help enhance the characterizations.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: As Jack and his boys face the ups and downs of daily life, we all discover the magic of laughter and the power of love in Porthouse Theatre’s fine production of ‘THE BOYS NEXT DOOR.”