Theater Review: Boy’s Next Door

Arnold, Norman, and Lucien, played by Richard Sabine, Max Cabot, and Tony Stafford.

Tom Griffin’s play centers on four mentally handicapped young men who share an apartment and struggle with the simplest things in life, let alone the more complicated hurdles that the rest of have to navigate. Presented as a series of vignettes or episodes, “The Boys Next Door” also focuses on Jacqueline, or “Jack” (Catherine Schultz), a social worker whose emotional involvement with the men is central to the unfolding story.

Presented through Sunday at the Redondo Beach Playhouse by the Art Attack Foundation, which is a performing arts scholarship organization based in Torrance, “The Boys Next Door” is sensitively directed by Tony Torrisi, who over the years has worked with the P.V. Players, the Norris Theatre, the Actors’ Repertory Theatre, and other local and non-local companies. He’s very good at moving characters in and out of scenes and utilizing the stage to maximum effect.

At the heart of the play is Richard Sabine as Arnold, Max Cabot as Norman, Tony Stafford as Lucien, and Timothy Sands as Barry. They are each distinctively drawn, with hyperactive Arnold having the most functional marbles, so to speak, in that he can at least hold down a menial job (as a janitor, of sorts, in a movie theater). Norman also has an outside income, employed by a donut shop, but this isn’t to say it’s smooth sailing for either of them. Norman, who is obsessed with his heavily laden key ring, now has a new problem, which is an insatiable appetite for donuts. As a result, he’s gained a tremendous amount of weight in the short time since he’s been hired.

Lucien, with the mental capability of a five-year-old, will never survive without supervision, while Barry labors under the impression that he’s a golf pro, and even tries – pathetically – to give golf lessons. Throughout the play, Barry praises his father, describing him as a pro football or baseball coach who hobnobs with famous athletes. One of the more poignant moments occurs when Barry’s father (Oh Rhyne), after many years of ignoring his son, comes to visit. Barry is overjoyed by the prospect of their reunion, but the man who enters the room presents a different picture entirely. We suffer along with Barry’s inability to fully express himself, and this is one of those scenes that is likely to stay with the viewer.

What makes this play succeed so well is the quality of the actors, who are mostly very good, Cabot and Sabine certainly memorable in their roles, but it might be Catherine Shultz who holds it together. Her character occasionally steps forward to address the audience, her words a mix of observation and confession. She remarks that when she loses her temper with the men – and they break down like children – she hates herself for a week. She also comments on the regular dances that are held for the benefit of the handicapped, saying that she can’t decide if it’s the saddest place on earth, or the happiest.

We’re still thinking about these last words at the close of act one, when Norman is dancing with Sheila (Donna Moore), another retarded, child-like woman, and suddenly the stage is awash in stars, as if we’re in the middle of some bright galaxy. Theatrically speaking, it’s like a fireworks finale, but at the same time it’s graceful, quiet, sublime.

The play, which also features Tony DeCarlo and Jan Morris, is entertaining from start to finish, and at the same time it manages to enlighten us about the plight of those who are mentally disadvantaged. It also introduces us to those, like Jacqueline, who are willing to be caregivers, but in the end can only do so much and then must move on with their own lives.

A thoughtful work, deeply touching under its abundant humor, and very much worth seeing.

The Boys Next Door is onstage tomorrow (Friday) and Saturday at 8 p.m., plus Sunday at 2 p.m., in the Redondo Beach Playhouse, 750 Inglewood Ave., Redondo Beach. This is an intimate, underutilized venue that I sincerely hope the city will pay more attention to. Tickets, $15 general; $12 students, seniors. At the door or go to ER

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