WEST CHESTERFIELD, N.H. — Actor Theatre Playhouse's presentation of Tom Griffin's story about four young men living life with mental disabilities, "The Boys Next Door" is a comedy and a drama. It touches the heart with compassion while it takes the audience into the lives of these men and the toll it takes on the social worker who oversees their everyday lives. It opened last Thursday at ATP and now with three performances under its belt, director Marilyn Tullgren said it received a standing ovation each night. When asked why she chose to direct "The Boys Next Door," she said, "It is a really good piece full of poignancy and humor. The mentally challenged are not something we usually want to get involved with, but Tom Griffin wrote such a touching piece, I had to try it." One of the challenges was finding the right actors who could delve into the mind of a mentally-challenged person and give a believable performance, and Tullgren did that with a cast that includes G. Sherman H. Morrison, Bruce Holloway, David Peck, Harral Hamilton, Jonathan Reid, Heather McCormack, Gail Haas, Jim Bombicino and Arthur Pettee.
The setting is a communal residence in a New England city, where four mentally handicapped men live under the supervision of an earnest, but increasingly "burned out" social worker named Jack. Norman, who works in a doughnut shop and is unable to resist the lure of the sweet pastries, takes great pride in the huge bundle of keys that dangles from his waist; Lucien P. Smith has the mind of a five-year-old but imagines that he is able to read and comprehend the weighty books he lugs about; Arnold, the ringleader of the group, is a hyperactive, compulsive chatterer, who suffers from deep-seated insecurities and a persecution complex; while Barry, a brilliant schizophrenic who is devastated by the unfeeling rejection of his brutal father, fantasizes that he is a golf pro. Mingled with scenes from the daily lives of these four, where "little things" sometimes become momentous (and often very funny), are moments of great poignancy when, with touching effectiveness, we are reminded that the handicapped, like the rest of us, want only to love and laugh and find some meaning and purpose in the brief time that they, like their more fortunate brothers, are allotted on this earth.
Tullgren said that though these men are flawed they are not incapable, and at times as the audience observes these men cope with daily life it invokes a sense of sadness, even if perhaps these men don't see that sadness in their lives.
Tullgren remarked in an earlier interview upon the playwright's unique slant on such a sensitive and often misunderstood subject. "This is such a touching dramatic work. Tom Griffin takes us into the everyday world of the mentally challenged with such wit and sensitivity that you come away with a greater understanding of what it means to be so afflicted. I don't want to give anything away, but he's a very smart playmaker. Several times throughout the evening there are moments we are literally swept into their world and see reality through their and our own eyes. It's a one-of-a-kind moment like no other I can recall in the theater ..I find it incredibly funny and moving at the same time."
The NY Times describes this comedy/drama in this way: "What makes this play worth seeing is the manner in which the playwright creates unsentimental characters who maintain their dignity and humanity in their world that is, at best, a place of utter and profound confusion Dramatically, they cannot experience a catharsis and move on. As an audience, we learn not to expect character development, but, rather, we appreciate small victories and sympathize with defeats It should be emphasized that there is nothing depressing about 'The Boys Next Door.' The play offers us a chance to see the lives of people who are struggling to get along and who are, in that respect, not all that much different from the rest of us."
The NY Daily News wrote, "Griffin's play hits squarely on the truth of life with its constant interplays and shadings of triumphs and tears." The NY Times sums it up with "'The Boys Next Door' moves the audience to an awareness of how many things in everyday life we take for granted "
Director Tullgren summed it up, "Directing 'The Boys Next Door' has been such a joy working with such an incredible amount of talent. Time and discipline have gone into the creation of these characters by this dedicated cast. It has been a joy to watch them become the people they are playing and see them such rich understanding to the piece. That, and the level of humor the playwright brings to each and every situation. There are scenes that are simply hysterically funny! Since the humor is being created by mentally challenged people, it was paramount to ensure that audiences are laughing with the characters and not at the characters!! Also, considering the shape and size of the Playhouse, creating space for the many outdoor/dance/official scenes meant getting creative!! Very creative!
"It has been a personal joy to be a part of this production and my hope is that audiences find it to be as poignant and funny and touching as I have. I am almost certain you will!"
"The Boys Next Door" continues on Thursdays, Fridays ,and Saturdays at Actors Theatre Playhouse through Oct. 1 at 7:30 p.m. Reservations are highly recommended and can be made by calling the toll-free box office line, 877-666-1855. Tickets are $15. On Fridays, students tickets are $8. The Playhouse is located on the corner of Brook and Main streets, West Chesterfield, N.H. For additional Information on this and other Playhouse productions, directions, reviews, blogs, etc. visit ATPlayhouse.org.