Laugh With Them 

Initially, and quite naturally, you may find yourself resisting laughter during the Vex’s production of Tom Griffin’s comedy, The Boys Next Door. After all, four out of five of the main characters are mentally handicapped … couldn’t that be, well, mean? But try as my politically correct super-ego might, I couldn’t help myself. I positively guffawed.

Boys director David Alford was reluctant to accept his post, he admits in his Director’s Notes. However, after reading and re-reading the play, he agreed because Griffin’s script doesn’t pick on the mentally handicapped — the main characters are managing the same insecurities most of us are. “We simply mask it better than they do,” he writes in the program. Anxiety, fear of heights, Daddy issues — the play focuses on our common humanity. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to imagine myself in several of the play’s comical situations, accidentally spouting, “My name is Ashley Lindstrom, welcome to my iced tea,” whilst nervously inviting a guest into my home.

The Boys Next Door comprises a series of vignettes of varying lengths about the everyday lives of four roommates, Arnold (JJ Gonzalez), Lucien (Abraham Valdes), Norman (Don Frame), and Barry (Kareem el Dahab), who share an apartment home in New England. Norman and Lucien are mentally retarded, Arnold is “borderline,” and Barry is a schizophrenic “golf pro.”

The play is punctuated by several monologues by Jack Palmer (Mark Daratt), the men’s social worker. These monologues are obviously a throwback to Alan Strang’s psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, in Peter Shaffer’s Equus. But Palmer lacks Dysart’s brand of raw, basic conflict (as does the play itself) and so his speeches, littered with bad jokes (“The way to a man’s crotch is … through his crotch.”), fall flaccid.

Through no fault of the actors, the script itself is pretty flat. Frequent blackouts between vignettes make it even more difficult to establish story and character threads; crises burst or bubble to the surface here and there, none really hammered home.

But it would be a shame to miss The Boys Next Door solely for that reason, because the acting is unbeatable. What could be a cast of cruel grotesques of the mentally handicapped are explored, researched, and cherished human characters navigating the waters of life, love, bullies, and body image. Norman’s crush, Sheila (Sara Valdes), is wonderfully childlike and free, and all of the actors have their relationships down pat.

The Vex’s “in the round” environment is perfectly intimate, with the action occurring mere feet in front of you (if you can snag a front-row seat — although there’s not a bad seat in the house.) Minimalist costumes, scenery, and lighting keep the spotlight on that fantastic acting. The “rat” scene, barely lit by midnight blue, was one of my favorites in the show.

Ultimately, the fine performances triumph over the less-than-perfect writing, and on the whole, this jury finds The Boys Next Door both touching and guffaw-worthy.

More by Ashley Lindstrom

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The Boys Next Door
7:30pm Fri, 8pm Sat, 2:30pm Sun
Through Sep 10
$17 general; $15 senior, military; $10 student,
SATCO
Sheldon Vexler Theatre
Barshop Jewish Community Center
12500 NW Military
302-6835
www.Vexler.org