Tom Griffin didn’t do anything spectacular when he wrote his dramatic comedy “The Boys Next Door,” but he did give us a light-hearted play that takes a risk in its premise: It is about mentally retarded adults.
That the play dares to let them be funny is admirable; the temptation among over-reactionary types would be to assert that a comedy involving the mentally handicapped is automatically mocking those people. That the Provo Theatre Company production, directed by David Morgan, pulls it off without seeming to make fun of its subjects is also worthy of praise.
The setting is a group home supervised by Jack (Tom Nibley), a gaunt, graying man who loves the men he cares for but is feeling burnt out by his responsibility to them. First there is Arnold (Scott Wilkinson), whom Jack tells us is “marginal” as far as being retarded, but who is most definitely a nervous, obsessive sort of fellow. Norman (Steve Dunford) is high-functioning, works at a doughnut shop and has a sweet crush on Sheila (Kimberley Cote), who is also mentally challenged. Lucien (J. Tekulve Vann) is somewhat less able to function in society, a fact that comes into play when the government mistakenly concludes otherwise and discontinues his Social Security payments.
And then there’s Barry (Christopher Clark), who is not retarded but schizophrenic. (He believes he is a golf pro.) Jack says he doesn’t belong in the group home, and he certainly seems to be a world apart from his housemates. Late in the play, we meet Barry’s uncaring father (Bob Nelson, understudying for Paul DeWitt), whose rough demeanor is the opposite of how the play believes men such as Barry ought to be treated.
Griffin clearly did not intend for the humor to be at the expense of the retarded characters, but it does stem naturally from the fact that they are retarded. That is to say, much of what’s funny — their reaction to a mouse in their apartment, Norman’s obsession with keys, and so on — would play out much differently if they were not mentally challenged. These characters happen to be, and the play honestly examines their particular foibles in a manner that is funny and at times even hilarious.
The play is little more than a series of vignettes, with only minor plot threads connecting them, and as such there is a feeling of fragmentation about it. But the acting is extremely well done, with each of the actors carefully — and usually successfully — balancing the line between portraying real people and becoming stereotypes.
It reaches its emotional peak in the scene between Barry and his father, a difficult conversation that plays out with the right mix of awkwardness and sensitivity. The comic zenith, meanwhile, is Norman’s completely unhinged behavior while on a date with Sheila — a date that consists of sitting in the apartment and discussing keys.
Not everything works — Barry’s conversations with his deaf neighbor seem farcical and out of place — but much more is right about the play than wrong. It’s a funny, gentle production.
What I wanted to say in the headline was, "'Boys Next Door' is one retarded play." No one went for that.