Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013

Beyond the Stage With THE BOYS NEXT DOOR

By Russ Bickerstaff
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It's always a  bit interesting to see what distracts me during a performance. I've written on the topic before. The distractions and last night's opening night performance of The Boys Next Door were particularly interesting to me.  The 1980's comedy about a group of men with serious mental handicaps living together in an apartment had some interesting offstage elements for me. 


One might have thought that the biggest distraction for me would have been the grade school girl sitting directly to my left. There with her mother, she was enjoying the play much more audible level than the rest of us in the theater.


The first time that I saw The Boys Next Door it was a production directed by my own father at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. One might've thought that would've been more of a distraction to me. It really wasn't. 


The biggest distraction for me last night was a poster on a door on the set. One of the men in the play is really into Spider-Man. There are posters of the character on the door. And because I'm in a position to know about such things, I know that the one of the posters on the door featuring the super-hero character didn't match the period of the play.


The Boys Next Door debuted in the 1980's, but the decade is not overwhelmingly present in the script. It makes reference to a pager. There are references to Russia which have greater significance in context of that decade. For the most part, however, the play could take place at any time. The production makes kind of a strong affiliation with the decade, though. Fashions of dress and furniture seem solidly set in the decade as are the pop songs featured in the show. (I still have Queen songs from It's A Kind of Magic running through my head as I write this. . . ) 


As mentioned before, there's a character who is really into Spider-Man. The top poster on that character's door is a Spider-Man poster clearly marked by a style of inking and digital color separations that would not have been popular until the mid-'90s. (Odd that the poster would be a problem. The boxes of Wheaties used in the play aren't '80s vintage boxes either if memory serves and they weren't a distraction at all…) The Spider-Man poster was a distraction for me. And it's reasonably safe to say no one else in the entire audience would be distracted by this . . . just me . . . and the reason that's funny to me is that it's a psychological tick that keeps me from being perfectly in synch with the comedy. 


And the comedy itself is about those ticks that keep people from being perfectly in synch with the rest of society. That poster sets me off the same way the character Arnold has problems with  a pair of welcome mats that he never really explains. The way Norman is fixated on his keys. The way Lucien can only seem to face a court appearance if he's got a Spider-Man tie and so on.


This play is a comedy about a group of men who are mentally disabled. We are laughing at those things we recognize in ourselves that are maladaptive and/or socially awkward. Things not altogether unlike being distracted by a poster that is perhaps 5 to 10 years out of context in an otherwise enjoyable and thought-provoking play.


That's something that any production of The Boys Next Door has to overcome in order to be successful. We are, as a responsible sensitive adults not entirely comfortable with laughing at people who are mentally challenged in any way. The people suffering from mental problems aren't people we feel comfortable laughing at. It feels cruel. However, the play is presenting them as people entirely we would like ourselves--people going through issues that are not entirely unlike our own. We are them. We laugh at them not because we feel as though we are better than them but because we identify with their problems.


In spite of this, there's a lot of discomfort in a group of adults watching this play. That's why it was so nice sitting next to a girl who is not at all uncomfortable with laughing at these things. And that's why I wasn't at all distracted by the laughter of the girl sitting next to me. One imagines that she probably hasn't experienced the kinds of mean-spirited humor that people with disabilities so often experience. The darker end of humor which is there to make some people feel better about themselves at the expense of others. This girl probably hasn't experienced a whole lot of that twisted kind of humor in her life. Her laughter felt pure and innocent. It echoed as the only sound in the audience that opening night through much of the beginning of the play. One gets the impression that her mother talked with her a bit during intermission. She was silent afterwards. It felt kind of disappointing, actually. Far from being distracted by her laughter, I felt it drawing me away from the distraction of the poster . . . drawing me into the humor of the play. I can't wait to start being able to bring my oldest daughter to shows. She'll be old enough to start attending with me in a few years. 


The Boys Next Door runs through November 17th at the Helfaer Theatre. For ticket reservations, call 414-288-7504. A review of the show itself runs in the next print edition of the Shepherd-Express

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