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The Boy Next Door

Every Wednesday we have dances here at the center. Most of the residents come. They drink punch and eat potato chips and pop balloons and hide in the bathroom and, sooner or later, dance. Some of the multiply handicapped just sit on the fringe and watch. It's a curious thing. I've been coming to these dances for months now and I can never decide if it's the saddest place I've ever been. Or the happiest. --- Jack.
The 2005-2006 theatre season is shaping up to be a season about topics we normally shy away from discussing -- religion (Arena Stage and Theater J), politics (Scena Theatre). And now Journeyman Theate tackles the mentally and emotionally challenged with Tom Griffin's warm and tender story about four men living in a group home and the burned out social worker who oversees their care.

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 is a high mark for future productions. Director Keenan uses a gentle, yet strong touch, to keep the play moving and the pacing consistent throughout its two hours. His cast of actors never break character, which is amazing since the myriad idiosyncrasies could be so easily missed while also saying lines and moving about the stage in demanding roles. Keenan has a wonderful sense of just the right amount of sentimentality to bring into the story, which highlights the humanity inherent in each of the characters.

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.

The Boys Next Door
by Tom Griffin
Directed by Jeff Keenan
with Cecil Baldwin, Don Prather, Dallas Miller, Michael Propster, Deborah Kirby, Becky Peters, Barry Abrams, Aniko Olah, and Al Twanmo
Scenic Design: Ryann D. Lee
Lighting and Sound Design: Bryan Miller
Costume Design: Melanie Dale
Properties Design: Tiffany Fillmore
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with 1 intermission
A production of Journeymen Theater
at WSC Clark Street Playhouse, 601 South Clark Street, Crystal City, VA
Telephone: 202-669-7229
WED - THU @ 7:30, FRI - SAT @ 8, SAT @ 2; $15-$20, all Wednesday performances are PWYC (Pay What You Can)
Opening 09/16/05, closing 10/15/05
Reviewed by Rich See based on 09/16/05 performance Reviewed by Rich See based on performance
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