I sat through Thursday's The Boys Next Door at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre fascinated and perplexed by the mixture of emotions I felt. Author Tom Griffin's play about four men with various degrees of mental illness living together in a group home is a comedy, for sure. But director John VanDeWoestyne and his cast presented it in such a way that I wanted to "Ha!" and "Aw-w-w!" simultaneously during almost every moment. The piece is both funny and deeply touching, and much of the credit for that goes to the perfectly cast actors playing the titular "boys." While it took time for a couple of them to win me over, by intermission, each one had me convinced that he shouldn't have been cast any other way.
Jonathan Grafft's obsessive-compulsive Arnold is the first to appear, returning home with 17 items because the grocers took advantage when he asked how many lettuce heads one person would reasonably need. Arnold's disorder is written into his dialogue, as he talks a lot and oftentimes repeats words or phrases - with an "I repeat" separating them - for emphasis, and inappropriately employs names of diseases in conversation. (He repeatedly refers to a surprise party as an "angina party.") Grafft, however, fleshes out the character with rigid posture and sharp body movements implying that Arnold's condition might actually be a form of Asperger's. He's awkward but driven, and, thanks to Grafft, sympathetic.
Don Faust's Lucien is the lowest functioning of The Boys Next Door's roommates and, in my opinion, the most charming of the four. Faust is sincere in his role, and so utterly believable that I wouldn't have recognized the familiar area actor if not for his face. While my heart ached for all of the challenged men, it hurt hardest for Lucien, especially as he faced an accusation from the state that he was faking his disability. Through it all, Faust maintained a childlike joy in his inflections and facial expressions, instilling in Lucien a sense of innocence. (He's also perfectly dressed by costumer Suzanne DeReu in sweatpants and a Cookie Monster T-shirt that reads "Keep Calm and Eat Cookies," befitting Lucien's mental age.)
Jordan L. Smith plays Norman, who falls somewhere between Grafft's and Faust's disabled characters in terms of low- to high-functioning. Norman is able to hold down a job at a donut shop but unable to resist the free donuts he's given (and he has the excess weight to show it), and also has an obsession with a set of keys that presumably aren't actually ever used. Smith disappears into his role with blinking tics, slowed speech compared to the actor's usual speech patterns, and a sort of small head bob that betrays his mental disability without Norman even speaking. (He also registers a believable look of temptation, and inner struggle to overcome it, when faced with the prospect of eating another donut.) Norman is romantically interested in Sheila, a woman with similar disabilities whom Stacy Herrick plays with innocent wonder. But the performer also struggled to maintain a consistent characterization during Thursday's production, sometimes coming across as genuine and at other times seeming as though she were pretending to be a child in a way that patronized Norman.
Finally, among the roommates, there's Justin Raver as Barry, a schizophrenic who believes himself a golf pro. Given his particular disability, Barry could pass as "normal," and that's exactly how Raver plays him - to the point that I questioned his choice to not play to his character's disability at all. The interpretation made sense, though, when Barry's abusive father (Mike Skiles) visits and Barry shrinks, both physically and emotionally, into a silent, frightened, recoiling child in his father's presence.
As the social worker taking care of the men, Victor Angelo makes clear that his Jack is burnt out in his job by way of almost emotionless deliveries of lines he's obviously repeated day after day. Jack's sentiments should be driven by sympathy for his charges, rather than that sympathy being but a minor undertone. Instead, Jack is going through the motions, with only fatigue, frustration, and disinterest registering in his inflections. It's obvious that Angelo's Jack cares about caring for these men, as he's neither overly cold nor disconnected, but tired from the time and energy it takes to tend to them.
Awkward delays in transitions and pauses in line deliveries negatively impacted Thursday's pacing, and VanDeWoestyne's dream sequence in which Norman and Sheila dance - where they see themselves as poised dancers - was hurt by costume changes that took too long. However, Richmond Hill's The Boys Next Door was otherwise a charmingly funny success.
The Boys Next Door runs at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (600 Robinson Drive, Geneseo) through June 14, and tickets and more information are available by calling (309)944-2244 or visiting RHPlayers.com.