Tom Griffin's "The Boys Next Door," currently in production at the Colonial Players of Annapolis, is a rare breed: an unabashedly didactic work that manages to make its point deftly and humorously without wailing, teeth-gnashing, or the plucking of society's guilt strings.
The subject is mental retardation and illness, and the play revolves around an extraordinary quartet of mainstreamed men who live in a group apartment under the watchful eye of their well-intentioned, long-suffering social worker.
There is Arnold -- a paranoid obsessive compulsive among paranoid obsessive compulsives. He drives his supervisor bananas with his tantrums, his whining about "behavior patterns" and his propensity for purchasing multiple boxes of Wheaties and heads of lettuce at the market.
Norman Bulansky -- "Hi. I'm Norman Bulansky. Welcome to my home." -- is perhaps the most functional of the four. A moderately retarded young man, he works at the corner doughnut shop when he isn't too busy stuffing his face with the boss' merchandise.
If you desire golf lessons from a paranoid schizophrenic, Barry Klemper is the man to call. Imbued with an energy that only mania can provide, Barry has the farthest to fall. And we learn in Act II that Mother Nature had an accomplice in the conspiracy to ruin this young man's life.
The other real heart-breaker of the group is Lucien. The profoundly retarded older gentleman cannot begin to master the alphabet in a pathetic attempt to impress a psychiatric evaluation officer. But his face lights up with the joyful innocence of a child as he describes his home and his three friends to the same functionary.
Much of the play centers on Jack Palmer, the burnt-out social worker who provides insights into the lives of his charges and into his own mounting frustration as well. Greg Peace is excellent as Jack, making his ambivalence palpable. The guys like him and he wants to help, but at what cost? His job drives him crazy. "They never change," he says in amazement and disgust. "They just never change."
Remarkable acting takes place every minute the four central characters are on stage. The facial energy alone is extraordinary.
Peter Kaiser is both hilarious and genuinely touching as the good-natured Norman. Characterizations this good are rare.
Jim Gallagher stunningly captures Barry's highs and lows. His prissy energy in Act I is, frankly, great fun. But it is in his portrayal of the character's stark terror in Act II that he shows his remarkable depth as an actor.
Arnold, as brought to life by Jim Newcomb, serves as rather incessant comic relief, but the characterization is so bizarrely energetic that Newcomb is a sight to behold. I'm told that there really are people like Arnold who exist in this world. I believe it, I guess, but just barely.
Unbelievably, Tom Boynton assumed the role of Lucien in this production at the very last minute. I say unbelievably because his absorption into this gentle, befuddled old soul is total. Grimaces of perplexity and rare smiles of understanding emanate from this man with equal radiance.
For one brief soliloquy, the vacant stare of Boynton's Lucien dissipates, as the character becomes whole and shines his inner light on us more comprehensively. "I will not wither because the cage is too small," he says defiantly before regressing to his other form. It is a transcendent moment.
Director Dan Higgs also has made excellent use of Nancy Fulton as Norman's lovely girlfriend, Sheila, who must be home by 9, and of A. C. Boughton as Mr. Klemper, the jerk who has much to learn from the "retards" he so cruelly disparages.
"The Boys Next Door" is playing now through June 13 at the Colonial Players Theater, 108 East St. in Annapolis. Shows are 8:30 p.m., Thursdays to Saturdays. Matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Phone: 268-7373.