We often neglect appreciation for the simple things in life. That most of us can wake up and move about our typical days with ease is nothing less than miraculous considering all of the variables that could oppose our favor. I speak mainly of our capacity to communicate an original thought clearly, an easy task for most. It’s not that simple for some. But don’t let it be assumed that struggling with one’s thoughts equates to not being deep. Far from it. Fulfillment of life is not a matter of absolute value for all; for some it can be found in something as unassuming as a ring of keys or catching a rat.
Tom Griffin’s The Boys Next Door is a series of vignettes following four mentally handicapped grown men living together in a group house as they each face the joys and challenges found in living together as well as their individual goals, all of which is watched over by Jack, a social worker who acts as their guardian who finds himself increasingly exhausted by his line of work.
The play begins by introducing us to Arnold Wiggins (Heath Thompson), a talkative janitor and self-proclaimed “nervous person” with obsessive compulsive tendencies. Thompson always speaks with straight-faced decisiveness, enunciating clearly as he declares his decisions with haste and certainty. As one of the least-handicapped of the group he often speaks with a degree of authority or leadership for the rest of the house, though is clearly exasperated when the others don’t always listen. Thompson’s powerful voice, though often unwavering, is appropriate for all scenarios and emotions. Up next is Lucien P. Smith (McArthur Moore), an illiterate, middle-aged man with the mental capabilities of a five-year-old who’s preparing to defend his state funding in front of the Senator. Moore’s performance is always touching; we find ourselves torn between the joy and laughter he offers us with his innocent, boyish charm and the childlike fear that crosses his face when confronted with that which he doesn’t understand. Carrying his Spiderman figure for reassurance, he is at once a man lost in thought and a child scared by the unknown. His soft-spoken, distant whimsy brings with it warmth to all of his scenes.
Michael Clinkscales, as doughnut-shop employee Norman Bulansky, brings with him the same charm he used to brighten the City Theatre Company’s stage in A Funny Thing Happened… He’s energetic, frenetic, yet always the most optimistic member of the Boys, even when troubled. Though all of the Boys offer some much-needed levity between the heavier moments of the play, Clinkscales remains the most consistently lighthearted as he adorably courts Shiela (Beth Watkin), a resident of another group house nearby. Together they exemplify the troubles that arise when those with mental disabilities seek romance in a comedic sense, but never ridicule their quirks. The fourth and final Boy Next Door is Barry Klemper (Tony Salinas), a schizophrenic golf enthusiast who speaks in a deliberate, businesslike manner. Salinas bounces between being the most talkative and confident member of the Boys to the troublingly silent one excellently. While one of the more humorous actors in the show, Salinas is tasked with some of the heavier moments of the production, in which his meek silence paired with his perpetual intense gaze creates a lasting impression on the audience.
To say any of these men are the stand-out of the production would be a disservice to the others. Each one brings with them a key element to the overall tone of the production: Thompson brings the mind, Moore has the heart, Salinas carries the soul, and Clinkscales offers the joy. They are a perfect balance that are a perfect storm of frustration at one moment and undeniably endearing the next.
Of course, the Boys need their fellow actors to support their tale. Chance McKee, as their social worker and guardian Jack, remains as levelheaded as possible throughout, donning an open ear a smile. That being said, the play doesn’t shy away from the reality of the weight placed upon those who look out for the mentally handicapped, and Jack is no different. McKee clearly loves and cares for the Boys, which only makes the moments in which he loses his composure all the more intense as one cannot help but find his actions unacceptable yet understandable.
As for the rest of the cast, the aforementioned Watkin was absolutely delightful and adorable, resonating well with Clinkscales’ joyfulness. Donald Owen, as Barry’s father, is a near-mythic figure whose arrival is built up throughout much of the play. It would be a disservice to you, the audience, to describe his arrival or character, but Owen’s encounter with Barry will leave you shaken. He certainly earns the anticipation he receives. The ensemble is rounded out by Te’Juana Johnson and Austin Vaught, both of whom portray three minor characters that are different enough to showcase their acting talents. As for the technical aspects of the show everything works well to support the production. Once again Andy Berkovsky’s set and light designs offer a playable space for the actors that creates a central location (the Boys’ common room) that can transform into separate locations with a few lighting tweaks.
What immediately struck me about this production was how tasteful the various degrees of mental handicaps were depicted. The titular Boys are seen as real people who can make you laugh and cry (and these men will make you laugh and cry), but never at the expense of their conditions. Each of them knows how to make moments both solemn and jovial. It would’ve been dangerously easy to make these characters stereotypes or gross over-exaggerations of those with mental conditions, but I never believed for an instant that the cast or crew of The Boys Next Door were anything but honorable in their choices. As directors Carl and Lacy Gonzales stated in their directors’ note, “…both of us felt it was important to treat these characters with the utmost respect”, and in that regard they succeeded beautifully. The Boys Next Door is a touching, heartwarming comedy that will leave you humbled by the genuine nature of the characters and from where they find value and joy in their lives. It’s a moving success for The City Theatre Company that receives my recommendations and applause.
The Boys Next Door continues playing at The City Theatre Company every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm until February 7th.