KPBS AIRDATE: October 17, 2003
Meet ‘The Boys Next Door.’ Barry thinks he’s a golf pro. Norman works at a donut shop and eats most of the product. Arnold is sure he can escape all his worries if he moves to Communist Russia. And Lucien is convinced that by carrying big old books, he’ll learn to sing the alphabet song. These ‘Boys’ are really grown men, disabled roommates under the supervision of case worker Jack, who’s getting burned out. They’re a handful, but they’re also touching and comical, in Tom Griffin’s poignant play about the mental and emotional haves and have-nots. Lamb’s Players Theatre presented the local premiere of the play a dozen years ago, and I never quite got it out of my mind. Now, the company has decided to revisit the piece to entertain and inform a whole new generation. Even if the message gets heavy-handed at times, it’s well worth hearing. But for genes and other accidents of fate, these guys could be you or me. They’re not to be shunned, ridiculed or taken advantage of, all of which happens in the play.. but treated with dignity, just as they try, in sometimes feeble ways, to conduct their lives. Norman even has a girlfriend, Sheila, played with stuffy-nosed sweetness by Deborah Gilmour-Smyth. It’s that pairing, of Robert and Deborah Smyth, that broke my heart the first time I saw the show. In one scene, during a weekly dance, they get up and shuffle as best they can. Then the lights dim, and they’re transformed into the graceful waltzers they see themselves as, or could be. It was a magical moment.
It’s clear that the players have spent a good deal of time with disabled folks; all the moves, the hand positioning, the awkwardness are perfectly in place. Kerry Meads has directed with a beautiful blend of humor and sensitivity. All the actors are wonderful, but Robert Smyth is outstanding as Norman, who says “Oh boy!” whenever life becomes overwhelming or unpredictable, which is pretty often. Paul Maley’s nervous, obsessive Arnold is spot-on, and Keith Jefferson widens his eyes and contorts his handsome face to inhabit Lucien, the most simple and childlike of the bunch. Nick Cordileone is credible and then catatonic as schizophrenic Barry. Jon Lorenz is solid and believable as the good-hearted but put-upon Jack. There’s solid work in the smaller roles, too. But I miss that waltz; this time, when the lights change for the dream sequence, the Smyths do some swing-turns, but there’s none of the Astaire-Rodgers elegance that made it so heart-wrenching before. After all the laughs and goofy screwups, the play manages to touch us at the core: we feel empathy, sympathy, sadness, guilt — and humble gratitude, too.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS news.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.