A few things I‘ll never understand: how my cell phone works in the middle of the Lincoln Tunnel, how so many women have been willing to sleep with Newt Gingrich, and why any theater company would stage The Boys Next Door. As far as I know, no one at SOAR Productions is lusting after Newt, but The Boys is, indeed, their current offering.
I had never heard of the play and was only mildly concerned by the cautionary pre-show announcement about some of the language. (The announcement had been requested by The ARC of New Jersey, an advocacy organization for “people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”) Turns out The Boys Next Door isn’t so much a play as it is a two-hour insult to the class of people it portrays.
The “boys” are four group-home residents, coping with those intellectual and developmental disabilities and with one another in a series of about 20 blackout scenes, some blessedly short, others excruciatingly long. While it doesn’t cross the line into outright ridicule, the play heaps one indignity after another upon the men in failed attempts to develop a story and to generate laughs.
One of the men is seemingly autistic, characterized by rapid speech patterns and jerky movements; another is slow-witted, unable to sing the alphabet in correct order; a third is less outwardly off-kilter, but imagines himself as a golf instructor. A confrontation between this young man and his father explodes into violence that leaves the son catatonic. The scene is disturbing, yes; but more for its awkward presence in the play than for its content.
The fourth fellow is the most realistic and, to my untrained observation, the least stereotypical. Norman is far from bright, but he questions his environment, and in the one plausible scenario, he and Sheila, a similarly afflicted woman, connect emotionally.
Besides “retarded” and “RE-tard,” there’s actually an offhand reference to most of “those” women being sterilized. Defenders of The Boys will remind us that it was written in 1980, when those terms and conditions were commonly applied to certain disabilities, and the point is well taken; but the play retains no sociological significance, nor, in a purely theatrical sense, does it entertain. Unlike Cuckoo’s Nest, there’s no plot thread, no charismatic leading character, no champion for any cause, very little drama and no humor except at the expense of the afflicted. To the credit of the small audience last Saturday night, no one laughed.
All that noted, it should be mentioned that some of the acting is decent. No one is helped by the plodding direction (low-IQ people do not necessarily take long pauses before they speak), but Tom Nemec and Mike Dalberg are at least consistent in their mimicry, and Marcus Scott and Carolyn Driscoll are warm and non-condescending as Norman and Sheila.
From ARCNJ’s website: “We strongly believe the only ‘r-word’ that should be used when referring to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is ‘Respect’.” At a time when Broadway shows like Mary Poppins and The Lion King are offering specially designed “autism-friendly” performances, The Boys Next Door is a disgrace.
Performances Fri and Sat, Feb 17 and 18 at 8pm in the Post Theater at the far end of Sandy Hook. Information and tickets ($18): 732-471-8268 or online at www.soarproductions.org