In a small hall in a retirement facility tucked a couple of blocks behind St. Joseph's Hospital, a little community-theater troupe has mounted a production that's about as good as any you'd get from the city's more professional companies.
Finely balanced performances lend both grace and exuberance to Tom Griffin's The Boys Next Door, a comedy-drama about four mentally challenged men coping with the world under the supervision of a kind but burned-out social worker. It's a challenging project for the Catalina Players, not because of the subject matter, but because the script forces the actors to throw themselves into totally alien roles, rather than merely play variations on themselves.
Three of the "boys" are middle-aged men with varying degrees of retardation. Arnold (Don Poage) is only marginally retarded, holds a janitorial job and has a good vocabulary, even if its components do become misplaced. "Personally, as a person, I would never wear cowboy boots," he declares. "I'm what you call a landlubber." Arnold, alas, is a bit obsessive and paranoid, and some never-articulated slight inspires him to hide the apartment's welcome mat and rugs.
Norman's (Ed Ortiz) capacity is more limited. He's like an overgrown kindergartener whose prized possession is a ring of useless keys he keeps clipped to his belt. Norman works at a doughnut shop, to his great delight but to the detriment of his waistline, and he's slowly developing a romance with a retarded woman he meets at a dance, Sheila (Nancy Killian).
Lucien (Victor Brazelton) is a big, happy baby. He toddles around, playing at being a grown-up, carrying around big library books he likes to think he can read, repeating some stray phrase that amuses him until everyone around him is driven nuts.
Barry (Anthony Auriemma) faces a different problem: He's schizophrenic, a highly articulate young man who fancies himself a golf pro and has the alarming plaid wardrobe to prove it. He seems to function well in the world, but he's really even more on the edge of disaster than his three roommates.
Watching over them is Jack (Joe Marshall), a counselor frustrated that his life is in flux while the lives of his charges never, ever change.
Aside from Jack, all these "boys" are presented as far more than goofy one-dimensional retards. Each man has his own definite hopes and plans, although the reality of his mental and emotional capacity reduces these hopes and plans to mere fantasies. These are guys for whom chasing down and exterminating a rat in the middle of the night is a great adventure and a proof of bravery. Yet it's not impossible for them to get a date.
Griffin depicts his characters with a delicate balance of realism and affection, always avoiding mockery; in a single scene, we can sympathize with Jack's frustration and laugh at the boys' antics, yet recognize each character as a person with some sort of inner life, however constrained that may be by our standards. As one character says when he departs "reality" and breaks into an imaginary moment of normality, "Without me, you will never be frightened of what you might have become, or may become."
Perhaps in that little address to the audience and in one other similar but nonverbal moment, Griffin is going a bit too far out of his way to demonstrate his characters' inner dignity. He should have trusted us--and himself--enough for that to become apparent without theatrical tricks.
At any rate, despite the author's best intentions, this play could be an embarrassment if the actors weren't totally convincing. Fortunately, director Bill Fikaris--in what is apparently his first local stage stint since moving here a year ago--has assembled a remarkable cast and guided it surely.
Each lead actor in his own way takes full possession of his role, not merely reading lines with the right inflections--that's just mimicry--but incorporating all the right gestures and tics and awkward ways of using the hands and fingers, not just as isolated elements that signify retardation, but as integrated components of lived-in characters. Of course, in the case of the "boys," every interior aspect is immediately externalized, and that may in a certain way make the actors' jobs easier; there's none of that messy duality or inner conflict to convey. Still, these are difficult characters to get right without resorting to caricature, and the actors succeed splendidly. This is particularly astonishing in the case of Brazelton, for this is billed as his first acting role.
The other cast members are up to the job as well. Killian deserves special mention as the innocent but not mushy Sheila; she has an especially sweet scene with Ortiz near the end.
There are a few little glitches on the tech side; another three well-aimed lights would have done wonders for the scenes played at the sides of and in front of the main set, and a better use of music (at least quicker cues) would have smoothed out the transitions. But all in all, this is a fine production that moves the Catalina Players to a level it may be a challenge to sustain.