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‘Boys’ transcends its comedy billing

Sat., Oct. 1, 2011

Here’s one of several scenes that allowed “The Boys Next Door,” about developmentally disabled adults in a group home, to transcend its billing as a comedy:

The lovable Norman Bulansky and the childishly cheerful Sheila are dancing awkwardly at a dance. They’re grownups, but they move like particularly clumsy and socially challenged fourth-graders. Then … the lights flicker and they suddenly begin to dance with the grace, maturity and confidence of Fred and Ginger.

Then the lights flicker again, and they are back to being painfully awkward again.

This scene is staged with such skill and subtlety by director Troy Nickerson that we know instantly what it means. “The Boys Next Door” is giving us a glimpse of the two intelligent, capable adults that Norman and Sheila might have been, but for a small accident of heredity or disease.

The two actors, David Gigler and Patricia Brady, also deserve plenty of credit for the poignancy of this scene. They played Norman and Sheila so well in earlier scenes that we already love and understand them in all their confusion and awkwardness. It makes their brief transformation even more bittersweet.

Crafting a comedy about people in a group home has obvious risks. If the audience senses even a whiff of ridicule or cruelty, “The Boys Next Door” would become a night of nervous, guilty, half-hearted laughter. Playwright Tom Griffin made two key decisions to avoid this fate. First, he presents these characters as people with the same problems we all have – social awkwardness, difficulty in communication, confusion over a complicated world – with the difference simply one of degree. They just feel it more often and more deeply.

Second, he creates a social worker named Jack (the fine Rick Rivera), whose anxiety is nearly as profound as theirs. His problem? He believes he does not have the mental strength to treat them with the patience they deserve. So the message of the play becomes, crucially, that these characters are worthy of only our best attention.

The result, in this well-acted production, becomes a few moments of poignancy and many, many moments of laughter. Yes, it really is a comedy, and a good one.

Each man in the home has his particular quirks: Norman likes doughnuts and says “Oh boy” in just about every situation. Lucien (the excellent Jhon Goodwin) looks like a giant teddy bear (of, alas, very little brain) and likes to sing the ABCs song, but not necessarily in the right order. Arnold (the intense and talented Todd Kehne) likes to get his world into proper order, and then has a diva-like meltdown when his plans invariably go wrong. Barry (the fine Billy Hultquist) has delusions of being a golf pro, along with deeply damaging father issues.

Griffin’s script has a few holes. Billy’s father is a stock, cartoonish, mean bastard. Griffin’s running gags (doughnuts, for instance) are trotted out once too often.

But the heart of the play, and of this production, is utterly sound. One of the key themes is delivered beautifully in a monologue by Rivera: One thing he can’t handle is that they never change. They never get better.

We’re reminded of this again in another scene. Lucien P. Smith is struggling to sing the ABCs song in front of a state Senate hearing. Then … the lights flicker and he draws himself up with confidence and delivers a reasoned, impassioned and eloquent account of his life. And then, his brows lower and he becomes the real Lucien again.

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