The 1986 off-Broadway play, The Boys Next Door, is a carefully crafted blend of zany comedy and heart wrenching pathos. A well-acted and deftly staged revival at PFamily Arts in Plano covers both bases admirably.
The "boys" of the title are four mentally handicapped men sharing an apartment in New England under the watchful, compassionate and increasingly impatient eye of Jack, a burned-out social worker. The state mental health bureaucracy hopes the four will be mainstreamed back into society. Jack has his doubts.
Arnold (Thiago Martins) appears almost normal at times, and he has a menial job. But his grasp on reality is tenuous. "His deck has no face cards," Jack says.
Norman (Steven Shayle Rhodes) also has a job sweeping up in a doughnut shop, and he has snacked his way to an alarming weight gain. He is below average mentally, but functions on the fringe of society.
Lucien (LeRoy Foster) is the most severly mentally challenged. He proudly brandishes his library card, although he cannot read. Barry (Kevin Michael Fuld) is of normal intelligence and has flashes of cleverness. But he has major emotional and psychiatric problems. He thinks he is a golf pro.
Director John S. Davies and producer William R. Park have cast well, with the uniformly excellent non-union ensemble joined by two Equity pros: Gregory Lush as Jack and director Davies as Barry's cruel father.
The latter's entrance is heralded by Barry's adoring anecdotes about the father's athletic accomplishments. It's an ambush, and it's superbly handled.
The scenes between Rhodes and Ashton McClearin, as Sheila, the mentally handicapped young woman with whom Norman is infatuated, are wonderful. McClearin reaches past the halting speech and offers a glimpse of the woman somewhere inside Sheila.
Playwright Tom Griffin provides two outside the box moments. In one, Foster abandons Lucien's child-like manner and speaks eloquently. In the other, Rhodes and McClearin are dancing like clumsy robots. Then, suddenly, they erupt into graceful Fred-and-Ginger moves. Strangely, the dance moment falls short of potential. The overall entertainment quotient of this production, however, is high.
The boys have pretty strange taste in fashion, and costume designer Kristin Moore has lots of fun with that aspect.
By way of footnote: Previous portrayers of Norman include Nathan Lane and Josh Mostel. Michael Jeter and Bob Balaban played Arnold in early stagings. And Mare Winningham was Sheila in an early production.
Is there a musical edition in the works? One sort of hopes not.