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A CurtainUp DC Review
The Boy Next Door
by Rich See
The Boys Next Door demands that a theatre company walk the fine line of creating comedy that laughs with the characters' antics and not at the characters' disabilities. In the hands of less talented people the results could be far from wonderful and easily wander into caricature terrain. W Happily, Journeyman's production never meanders into mugging stereotypes. Instead director Jeffrey Keenan and his wonderful cast create a compelling performance that must be truly exhausting for the actors who portray the people residing in the group homes.
Produced Off-Broadway in 1987, The Boys Next Door received fairly good reviews in New York and its life affirming message seems to resonate with audiences across the globe since it was the most produced play of 1989. The play has been made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie and Mr. Griffin, who is also an actor and screen writer, has written the plays Einstein and the Polar Bear and Mrs. Sedgewick's Head.
Although introduced almost 20 years ago, the play still shines a light into a world that has not seemingly changed too much. A world most of us are far removed from except by news stories or occasional interactions in our daily lives. Griffin does not sugar coat the realities of the lives of the mentally or emotionally challenged. The play's sad and vague, as well as happy notes, reflect life and offer no clear directions for us to imagine where the story may continue once the characters walk off the stage. This bitter sweetness that runs throughout that drives its emotional core.
Continually breaking the fourth wall, the story focuses on the apartment where Arnold, Julien, Norman and Barry reside as part of an independent living program. Jack, the social worker who assists and supervises them is a woman who is suffering from severe burnout while at the same time trying to make the best decisions possible for each of the men. Pushing them to be self-sufficient, but realizing they have limitations, she is a constant fixture, a reassuring anchor to their lives. Caring deeply about them and knowing they need her, she is torn by the idea of finding another, less emotionally draining job. The plot takes us through a slice of each character's life: Arnold deals with community people who take advantage of him, Julien testifies before the state senate, Barry confronts his abusive father and Norman develops a romantic interest with a woman at the residence center.
This is only Journeyman's second season and
Ryann Lee's large set has a nice cozy, yet group residence feel to it. Bryan Miller's lighting and sound create a flowing mood, especially (and ironically) during the rat hunt when there are no lights. Melanie Dale's costumes are fairly on the mark, although Arnold's high-waisted pants and glasses make him look a little too much like a former TV character.
As Arnold, Cecil Baldwin is a bundle of nerves and constant manic excitement. Throughout the entire show he gives an air of being a tightly wound rubber band just about to fling himself across the room. Baldwin brings just the right amount of comedic harsh bluntness to this intense personality which is mixed with an emotional neediness that Arnold himself doesn't quite understand.
Dallas Miller plays Julien, who has the intellectual capacity of a five year old, moves about the stage maintaining the lack of motor skills and coordination that constrain his character. His performance is extremely impressive in that his every word and movement is done with a deliberateness that also imparts a fascination with things like lettuce, hand puppets and soap suds. There's a golden moment when he breaks out of Julien to so eruditely address his case before the state senate and then just as quickly reverts back into speaking Julien's child-like broken English.
Don Prather as Norman brings a child's nervousness to the fore every time he says "Oh boy!" And your heart melts a little each time he answers the door or suddenly erupts in the middle of a conversation "Hello. My name is Norman Bulansky. Welcome to my home. Won't you take a seat." (A courtesy all the men are taught.) His crush on Sheila (played with equal earnestness by Becky Peters) is most touching when she visits Norman and he sets out two huge trays of Dunkin' Donuts. And their dance at the end of the first act (written into the script by Mr. Griffin) is magical.
As schizophrenic Barry, Michael Propster takes a "Who's on first?" gag and runs with it or, more appropriately, hits a hole in one. But it's when his father comes to visit and you begin to see why Barry is so emotionally troubled, that the role suddenly moves from the background of the play into the forefront. The one swift movement Mr. Propster makes when he dives from the couch to the floor speaks volumes.
If there is a villain in The Boys Next Door it is Barry's father, Mr. Klemper. Barry Abrams brings a violent zeal to the part that makes you think his character may have ripped the wings off flies or engaged in other lovely hobbies as a child, hobbies which perhaps he still maintains.
In a role originally written for a man, Deborah Kirby creates social worker Jack with an air of mild resignation. Kirby keeps a calm demeanor which acts as an anchor to the rest of the constant movement and interaction going on around the stage. There's a point as the characters are yelling at each other when you realize that she is the calming touchstone to which the audience goes back to reconnect. The moments where her character does break down in emotion provide a sense of the frustration that is burning her out.
Filling out the cast are Aniko Olah and Al Twanmo who together create six characters. Ms. Olah is unrecognizable as elderly Mrs. Fremus, next door neighbor Mrs. Warren and then the challenged Clara who only seems able to say "No!" Meanwhile Mr. Twanmo's Senator Clarke personifies the political system within which the social support network of the country must operate.
While not earth shattering and without the fanfare of several other larger shows happening around town, The Boys Next Door is definitely worth a trip to the Clark Street Playhouse. It is a terrific little show that will have you laughing, perhaps crying, and ultimately delighting in its glow of humaneness.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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