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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Bittersweet Comedy

Theater Review

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  Sunset Playhouse tackles a tough challenge with its latest production, The Boys Next Door. Written in 1985, the play attempts to raise awareness of issues faced by the cognitively disabled. Often, this type of “message” play is long on exposition and short on entertainment. The Sunset production, however, manages to balance both elements quite well. Credit goes to director Mark Salentine for keeping the show on task throughout its two-and-a-half-hour running time.

  The “boys” referenced in the play’s title are actually grown men. They live together in a group home under the daily supervision of Jack, a paid caretaker. As the play progresses, it’s clear that Jack needs his “boys” almost as much as they need him. Each of the characters has his own peculiarities. Arnold is nervous and paranoid. Norman, who works in a doughnut shop, responds to any unusual event with the exclamation, “Oh, boy!” Another resident, Lucien, admits he has the intelligence “somewhere between a five-year-old and an oyster.” His prized possessions are a library card and a printed Spiderman necktie. He rooms with Barry, who believes he’s a golf pro. Barry often dresses in snazzy golf attire.

  The play’s humor emanates from the character’s interactions. Perhaps the funniest is Arnold (Scott Kopischke), who veers between reason and obsession. He is quick to point out others’ fallibilities while being totally unaware of his own sometimes bizarre behavior. For instance, Arnold decides to leave for Russia—and heads for the bus station. He often trades barbs with Norman (Lawrence K. Lakasavage). Norman’s fractured logic is hilarious. Some of his best scenes are at the weekly dances sponsored at a local community center. Normally outgoing, Norman becomes sweetly shy in the presence of Sheila, his girlfriend. As the play slips from reality to fantasy, Norman and Sheila suddenly glide around the dance floor with crisply executed dance moves. It is a well-staged and touching moment. Patti Anne Hachmeister gives an impressive performance as the physically and mentally impaired Sheila.

  The playwright doesn’t shy away from the realities faced by these vulnerable individuals. The men are unwitting stooges for a local grocer. They are victimized by a bullying co-worker and, in one case, a violent family member. In general, the men feel that the world is a scary and upsetting place. They rely heavily on Jack, who is an advocate, protector and teacher. Jack realizes, however, that he is burning out from the constant demands placed on his time and energy. The play ends on a bittersweet note as the “boys” come to terms with Jack’s departure, each in his own special way.

  The Boys Next Door runs through June 14 at the Furlan Auditorium in Elm Grove.