Thursday, April 12, 2012

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Boys Next Door"

The second production in the Cloverdale Playhouse's Inaugural Season -- Tom Griffin's touching comedy The Boys Next Door -- is setting a high bar for local theatre. Ensemble performances by artistic director Greg Thornton's team of gifted actors have audiences laughing and crying by turns as they connect to the lives of four mentally backward men [the appropriately called "boys" of the title] and their compassionate counselor as they attempt with his help to transition back into a society they barely comprehend.

Each suffers from some degree of mental problem: Arnold [Greg Babb] is marginally deficient, worries about everything and is taken advantage of by local merchants; Lucien [Aaron Fonesca] is severely retarded; Norman [Stephen Dubberly] who works in a donut shop & consumes the day's rejects and left-overs is the most cheerful but is obsessed with the large set of keys he has strapped to his belt; and Barry [Jon Chapman] is a documented schizophrenic who appears to be the most normal but believes he is a golf pro & offers lessons for $1.13 an hour.

Jack [Scott Page], their counselor, has issues of his own, doubting the value of his work with them and fearing burn-out, seeks other employment.

They are all wounded souls trying to make the best of their conditions; and all of them take steps and several missteps towards resolution. -- Whether Arnold's frustrations with the other "boys" will ever allow him to escape to Russia, whether Lucien will convince a Senate committee he is "capable" by singing the alphabet song [with errors], whether Norman's romance with Sheila [Tara Fenn] will ever amount to anything significant, whether Barry's romanticized version of his father Mr. Klemper [George Jacobsen] will asuage the fear he has of him when Klemper visits his son, and whether Jack will recognize how essential the "boys" and he have become to one another -- all these are part of the gently humorous and very real lives displayed on the Cloverdale Playhouse stage.

This is a gifted ensemble. Each of the actors has discovered specific behaviors appropriate to their individual conditions: peculiar tics or shuffling walks or facial expressions combine with a good amount of vocal dexterity to make the roles distinct and memorable. And the humor stems directly from the fact that they can be clearly identified through the truthful portrayals of the actors. -- In contrast, Mr. Page's calm demeanor and completely naturalistic depiction of Jack, his inherent kindness to the "boys" and compassion for their multiple predicaments, and his firm consistently gentle guidance of them helps audiences understand the "boys" and care about all of them.

There are some remarkable scenes of discovery in this production: the budding romance between Mr. Dubberly's Norman and Ms. Fenn's Sheila is so honest and sensitive that one can't help but approve, despite Jack's explanations of how the relationship is doomed from the start; Mr. Fonesca's inept testimony before the Senator [sensitively played by Roy Goldfinger] hides the generous & loving soul beneath the surface affliction; Mr. Chapman's [Barry] catatonic response to his father's crude and cruel treatment [a shocking scene played with grit by Mr. Jacobsen] is a fine contrast to his previous bravura; and Mr. Babb's Arnold, reaching the last straw and determined to go to Russia finally agrees to return with Jack to the place they can all call home.

Jack's dilemma, too, is a complex one. Divorced and burning out, he questions his impact on the "boys", and thinking that they "all deserve better", asks himself: "What happens when they don't need you anymore?" And while "They all stay the same...I don't" is clear from the start, they all need one another.