The Boys Next Door by Tom Griffin. Directed by Paul Murphy
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Ted Phelps, Jean-Remy Monnay, Kevin Wixsom, Neal Berntson and Devin James Leonard; photo: Dan Region
"A plot to suppress music and news."
Way back in 1987 the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA introduced a new play, The Boys Next Door, starring David Strathairn. It did well enough for its director, Josephine Abady, to move it off-Broadway with a new cast of players, one of whom - Christine Estabrook - won two awards for her work in the role of Sheila. Nearly a decade later Hallmark Hall of Fame made a TV movie of the play with a cast that included Michael Jeter (who was a replacement in the off-Broadway edition) and Caroline Aaron (who was in the BTF original) and Mare Winningham who also won an Emmy for the role of Sheila. You might think that Sheila is the central character, but she isn’t, even as winningly played by Jody Kordana in the current production at the Ghent Playhouse.
This is a comedy about four men with mental challenges who live in a group home in New England and the man who oversees their daily existence. Sheila is also handicapped by mental issues and she is the sexual obsession - or love interest if you prefer - of one of the men, Norman Bulansky, who would do anything for her except the one thing she wants - to take possession of his ring of keys. As intriguing as this relationship is, it is not the central issue of the play. Each of the four men have a story that needs to be told. Jack, their supervisor, also has a story, a difficult one: he needs to move on in his own life, but emotionally he cannot leave the men he works with until they are in a personal "place" that gives them some security. Clearly he is the most challenged of the five central male characters.
It is difficult in a play to sustain two principal stories, let alone five. We’re not talking Eugene O’Neill here, whose plays could last for five or six hours. This is a delicate comedy lasting two and a half hours. The playwright’s choice was to give us vignettes, short scenes, sometimes only two or three lines long, that illuminate each of the men’s tales but which often leaving us wanting more. In the Hallmark film the screenwriter was able to use these vignettes by weaving them tightly together with a simple cut or dissolve. On the stage it is much more difficult to achieve.
Director Paul Murphy has succeeded admirably in weaving as best he can with the limited possibilities of the stage on which he works. Stage Manager Mary Reardon and her crew - including actors - do the best they can to swiftly make the physical changes needed to bring us to the next scene, the next character, the next place. Unfortunately the second act becomes a constant fluctuation of sets and that slows the process and distances us a bit from the people whose lives we are watching unfold before us. I do not know what other options there might have been for this company in mounting this play. It is to Murphy’s credit that the characterizations he and his cast have brought to life hold our interest in the darkness between the scenes, a darkness not unlike the challenges the characters themselves face constantly.
The play opens and closes with a focus on Arnold Wiggins, an OCD sufferer played by Joe Grifasi, David Strathairn, Michael Jeter and now - in Ghent - by Ted Phelps. Phelps is marvelous in this role. His nearly emaciated persona reflects physically the internal mess of a man, obsessive and compulsive, who dreams of Russia, steals the welcome mat and natters on about all manner of marvelous things like his nickname of Arnold, his ID sticker that says "Bob" and his rejection of all things not recommended. He even believes that Nola Weather Radio is a plot to suppress music and news. He is the greatest of victims, the most dangerous of friends. Phelps, under Murphy’s direction, brings every aspect of this character together in a seamless, realistic and very funny way.
Kevin Wixsom is Norman, a Dunkin’ Doughnuts clerk who lives to feed on broken baked goods. There is a realism in his playing that almost tips the balance scale to that level of "too real." Jean-Remy Monnay plays Lucien P. Smith, the most damaged of the quartet and even at his funniest, there is always something emotionally moving about this character in Monnay’s hands. Threatened with the loss of social services he faces a Senate query and escapes momentarily from his disability to express the soul of his inner man. It is an enigmatic piece of writing which Monnay pulls off admirably.
The fourth room-mate is Barry Klemper, a youthful golf-pro with communications skills difficulties played by Devin James Leonard. This young actor makes us believe that his character’s traits are very real, especially in his scene with his visiting father played with almost unbelievable menace by Tracy Trimm. Trimm’s aggressive character so completely explains Leonard’s own inner bully that for four minutes or so we completely forget that there are other characters, other stories.
Paul Leyden does well with his two characters and Lael Locke also plays a pair of interesting women with a certain aplomb. Roseann Cane plays the new neighbor, the role created and later recreated by Caroline Aaron. She also plays another mental out-patient whose skill with the world "no" should be a lesson to everyone. Jody Kordana as the sweet, key-obsessed Sheila is a perfect match for Wixsom’s Norman.
Neal Berntson plays Jack, the man whose job it is to watch over the people who live in the complex. His is the traditional "trap" role, a part not seen as central, but also never outside our view, our attention. It is, perhaps, his story that takes hold of our imaginations. Here is a man - once played by Woody Harrelson, crippled in relationships but considered to be normal who does his best to hold together half a dozen lives while unable to control his own. When he finally takes the necessary steps for his own survival it tears him apart and his final scene with Arnold is a truly emotional one which director Murphy uses well. He, and the playwright, allow Jack to give the final moments of the play away to another character, but it is that moment, played beautifully by Berntson, that returns the play Jack.
The set, by Bill Visscher, works very well for the play and Joanne Maurer’s costumes help to define each of the characters. Matt Sikora has done well with the lighting but he and the director should be able to do a bit more to bring us successfully to the ends of both the acts. The playwright hasn’t given us much of a first act closer, but the second act’s final scene is well written and needs that sense of buttoning that lighting and pacing could give it.
This show will make you laugh, not at the disabled, but in spite of them. These are very human characters, played well by very humane actors under the guiding hands of very humanistic director. While I might not like the play - more a revue without songs really - I love the production and would not have missed it for the world.
The Boys Next Door plays weekends at the Ghent Playhouse through February 8. Performances are Friday-Saturday at 8:00 and Sunday at 2:00. All seats are reserved and prices range from $12.00 for members to $15.00. The Ghent Playhouse is located just off Route 66 in the middle of Ghent, NY. For tickets contact the box office at 518-392-6264.