Welcome to the neighborhood

Last week, the School of Drama performed Tom Griffin’s The Boys Next Door, a play about four mentally disabled men living together in a group home. Later adapted into a film, The Boys Next Door is composed of vignettes concerning each of its characters, some poignant, some comical. The show was directed by drama directing major Jon Brence and served as his undergraduate senior thesis.

“I first came in contact with The Boys Next Door when it premiered in 1996 as part of the Hallmark Hall of Fame motion picture series. My mother had become an instant fan of the production, which then inspired me to hold onto the concept as a way of giving back to her my senior year,” Brence wrote in an e-mail. “Thus, I directed the stage version as a way of saying ‘thank you’ for putting up with me for the past four years.”

The Boys Next Door is set in 1980s New England, following the deinstitutionalization push of the 1960s and ’70s. Following this movement, many disabled individuals lived together in group homes with the help of one or more caregivers. Group homes, which continue to exist today, are located in neighborhoods throughout the country. The homes have met with mixed reactions from neighborhood residents; some embrace group homes into their communities, while others try to push them out, citing concerns over security and property value.

Griffin’s “boys” are Arnold, Norman, Lucian, and Barry, overseen by caregiver Jack (junior drama major Charlie Murphy). Arnold (junior drama major Hunter Herdlicka), the first character we meet, is what Jack describes in a monologue as “borderline” mentally disabled; he suffers from a severe form of OCD. Arnold is over-the-top fastidious, and finds solace in making lists and hatching plans, however half-baked. Arnold is one of the play’s most lovable characters, due in part to Herdlicka’s spot-on timing and practiced mania. In one scene that’s both funny and moving, Arnold returns from the grocery store with nine boxes of Wheaties because the store manager took advantage of him, convincing him to buy more than he needed.

Next up is Norman (junior drama major Bernard Balbot), a roommate with Down syndrome who holds down a job at a nearby donut shop. Norman has a thing for the likewise disabled Sheila (a delightful Ryah Nixon, a junior drama major), which makes for some The Other Sister-like romantic comedy, much to the audience’s delight.

Junior drama major David Berger-Jones plays Lucian, an autistic member of the group home. In one especially moving scene, we see Jack take Lucian to court, where he has to testify in order to regain benefits from the government. Here, a very confused Lucian tries to impress the judge by singing the ABCs (he can’t) and wearing a Spider-Man tie.

The final roommate is Barry (senior drama major Sean Hamrin), a schizophrenic who, in the beginning of the play, tries to make some extra money teaching golf to the locals at 25 cents a lesson. In one of the play’s most emotional scenes, Barry is visited by his father (senior drama major Jon Freeman). It’s a disappointing confrontation that causes Barry to unravel, landing him back in an institution. In a monologue, Jack laments that Barry’s father was allowed to visit; he tried to prevent the interaction, but his boss’ boss overturned the decision.

Along with some impressive acting, The Boys Next Door included a variety of upbeat tunes, all of Brence’s choosing. Selections ranged from Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” (which was Brence’s parents’ wedding dance), to Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual” (a reference to Tim Burton), to the theme from Magnolia (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who Brence is studying).

One of the most interesting effects of The Boys Next Door is the show’s occasional breaks from reality. In one scene when Norman and Sheila are dancing, the couple suddenly shifts from the natural, awkward dancing into a smoothly choreographed duet. Similarly, when Lucian goes to testify in court, the other characters freeze as he stands up and addresses the audience in a sophisticated manner that betrays his disability. These moments are reminiscent of The Music Man, when the children’s earnest efforts transform them into what they wish they could be.