THE BOYS NEXT DOOR
Remember The Producers? Mel Brooks's comedy about two guys who stage a musical called Springtime for Hitler, expecting it to flop? Only it doesn't flop? And they end up in jail, ha-ha? Remember the opening-night sequence, and that one shot of the audience right after they've seen a big production number about how great life is under Der Fuhrer ("Don't be shtupid, be a shmahty, come and join de Nazi Pahty")? Remember how the entire audience just sat there, in a state of absolute, bug-eyed, slack-jawed stupefaction at the infinite tastelessness of it all? Remember that?
Well, here's your chance to experience that same sense of stupefaction for yourself. I can't say I was actually paralyzed by the ineptitude and offensiveness of The Boys Next Door. But the feeling of disbelief-edging-toward-horror it inspired in me was mighty, mighty potent.
What an awful show. What a miserable show. What a rotten, repulsive, pathetic show.
And the worst of it is, it's perfectly sincere. In marked and rather alarming contrast to the would-be con men in The Producers, the people responsible for The Boys Next Door seem to have thought they were offering their audience something truly good--even noble: a sensitive, bittersweet look at the lives of four mentally handicapped men as they try to negotiate the rigors of everyday events, from cleaning an apartment to holding a job to wooing a woman. The Boys Next Door is supposed to open our eyes to the heartaches and small victories of life in the extremely slow lane.
We're expected to laugh, we're expected to cry. Compulsive Arnold gets mad and hides the welcome mat, ho-ho. Simple Norman falls in love, awwww. Schizoid Barry thinks he's a golf pro, hyuck-yuck. Childlike Lucien is threatened with the loss of his government aid, oh no. The play's author, Tom Griffin, is obviously out to demystify mental illness and to dramatize the incredible difficulties posed not only by the handicap itself but by the public's ignorance/indifference/hostility toward it. This is unquestionably very nice of him. But he's got nowhere near the theatrical sophistication he'd need to make a decent job of it. Even his best shots--like an ongoing bit having to do with Arnold's victimization at the hands of a small-time bully--are subsumed in thick, thick layers of the cornball and the elementary.
Griffin's a bad writer. He turns a potentially devastating scene between golf pro Barry and his long lost dad into the most puerile thing I've ever seen on a stage: a psych-book litany of father-son don'ts. And yet his incompetence is of a quality that's considered acceptable, even laudable, in the context of current American mainstream theater. Steel Magnolias is certainly no better than The Boys Next Door, on a technical level. But Steel Magnolias is about a bunch of wisecracking southern matrons with big hair and dumb husbands; The Boys Next Door is about mentally handicapped people. That is, about the helpless, the vulnerable, and the habitually ignored. And for that reason, Griffin's otherwise commonplace vulgarity deepens into a profound and genuinely stupefying ugliness.
An ugliness made even worse than I would have thought possible by Dan LaMorte's amateurish direction. Apparently incapable of discovering and conveying a subtext, LaMorte mangles passages that might have been construed as touching, turning this Pegasus Players production into one long series of retard jokes. The set he elicited from Tamara Turchetta--who's done interesting work elsewhere--may reasonably be considered the first such joke.
Wayne Brown has no idea what to do with Arnold; Ted Koch plays Barry simple when he's actually crazy; Jim O'Heir's Norman belongs in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown; and Gary Yates's Lucien makes me think of Eddie Murphy's Buckwheat on Quaaludes. Paul Mabon is a solid actor, and he lends some real (not fake) humanity to the role of Jack, a social worker in charge of supervising the boys--but what's the use?
There's a scene in The Boys Next Door where Norman tries to sit next to his girlfriend and finds himself confounded by a retarded woman--played by Diana Jordan--who keeps howling No! at him. This is not only the sole authentic moment in the play, it also contains the one piece of good advice I can offer anyone thinking of seeing the play: No!
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.