Every actor in Hollywood knows that the surest route to earning awards is by playing an impaired character. From Cliff Robertson in Charly and Dustin Hoffman in Rainman to Geoffrey Rush in Shine and Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade, we seem drawn to performances that capture some aspect of deviation from the norm. Perhaps it's the knowledge that none of us are very far away from it -- that the precarious condition we call sanity could be so easily disrupted by uncontrollable events or physiological changes.
Unfortunately, it's very easy for such acting enterprises to turn into mawkish caricatures, ultimately fetishizing the handicapped person and turning him into a cutesy, huggable plush-toy version of a human being (Sean Penn in I Am Sam). And that danger is multiplied by five in Tom Griffin's play The Boys Next Door, now at the Porthouse Theatre, since it portrays a group home for men who are minimally functional but who need daily assistance from a paid counselor. Though one of the actors skates perilously close to the over-the-top edge in this production, director John Woodson manages to keep each of the characters grounded, warmly amusing, and ultimately very affecting.
It's set in present-day New England, at a residence that houses four men who exhibit varying degrees of mental illness. The de facto leader of the home is Arnold, an edgy and nervous fellow with a persecution complex the size of New Hampshire.
Griffin nicely defines the kind of mental problems we're dealing with at the outset, when Arnold arrives from the grocery store with nine boxes of Wheaties. The store clerk, taking advantage of Arnold's dependence on others, had manipulated him into buying more than he needed. (Seem unlikely? Just remember the lunch-counter creep who was seriously shortchanging one of his regular customers, a blind man, at the courthouse in Cleveland.)
Living with Arnold is Norman, a large man who has been growing heftier since starting his new part-time job at a Dunkin' Donuts; and an African American named Lucien, who is the most damaged of the bunch, uttering the same phrases repeatedly and taking inordinate pride in the library card that bears his name. Perhaps the most intriguing individual is Barry, a schizophrenic who fancies himself a golf instructor, even though he appears to have no skills or knowledge of the sport. He is selling lessons for $1.13 each, until business falls off and he marks them down to two for a quarter.
The person in charge of this off-center quartet is Jack, a social worker who visits daily. Michael Anderson does a fine job with this less showy role, blending understandable feelings of compassion and exhaustion, as Jack monitors the mini-trajectories of each man's dreams, along with his own changing plans. Barry is anticipating the visit of his father with a mixture of pride and dread, while Norman has met a mentally challenged woman named Sheila and is getting ready to invite her to his "pad." Lucien will be appearing before a board of mental-health professionals to determine his status, and Arnold is dealing with a bully at the movie theater where he works.
In the strong Porthouse cast, Brian Zoldessy is absolutely perfect as Arnold, snapping out his empty threats ("I'll move all my stuff to Russia!") whenever he's faced with a situation he can't handle. Zoldessy masters Arnold's edgy movements and effortlessly twirls many of the funnier problem-solving situations into gales of laughter. After a minuscule restroom accident at a dance, for example, he decides to splash water all over himself to hide the evidence.
Chuck Richie is sweet but determined as Norman, wooing Sheila (well played by Megan Elk) bashfully on the dance floor. Act One closes with these two rocking awkwardly to the music, segueing into smooth dance steps, and then reverting to their clumsy selves. It's a lovely and heartbreaking moment.
As Barry, Andrew Cruse is the most normal-seeming of the group, until you listen to what he says, railing about one student's incomprehensible obsession with "hedges" and never understanding that that is the man's name, not his golfing problem. When his domineering father (an imposing Pete Ferry) shows up, we get a glimpse into Barry's troubled past. Hollis Hayden Jr. almost overplays the childlike excesses of Lucien, losing some of the character's depth in the process. But his later scene before the board, when he steps out of his damaged role to speak in the voice of the man he might have been, is gripping.
Playwright Griffin has created an insightful and often hilarious script, beautifully rendered by a talented company. As Jack says about the dances his charges attend, "I can't decide if it's the saddest place I've ever seen or the happiest." The answer, of course, is both.
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