In dramatic works that center on the lives of the developmentally disabled, there is an invariable question of whether the actors carry their roles with the dignity necessary to not become a caricature.
From “Rainman” to “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” there’s plenty of room for debate about what makes performances involving the mentally handicapped rise to a level of tenderness and understanding necessary to be considered great.
The qualities of these performances are fleeting things — emotional space held within characters when they are alone with the audience, a sensitive touch with a verbal affectation, a gentle humor that gives the audience a place to empathize with the characters.
Hampton Theatre Company’s new production of “The Boys Next Door,” which opened on March 22 and continues through April 8 at the Quogue Community Hall, has all the characteristics of such fine performances.
Set in a communal residence in New England in the 1980s, “The Boys Next Door” is a series of vignettes in the lives of four developmentally disabled men and their caretaker, Jack, who is torn between finding a new job and caring for his charges.
The play opens with a monologue by Arnold Wiggins, a nervous, obsessive-compulsive and mildly disabled resident who has just returned from a trip to the grocery store with nine boxes of Wheaties, seven heads of lettuce, a bag of charcoal briquettes and a quart of milk. He’d purchased the items after he asked the store clerk how many boxes of Wheaties a single person should buy. The clerk told him he’d need 17 boxes, but there were only nine in the store, so he made up the difference in item number with the lettuce and charcoal.
Jack later makes him bring everything back to the store, telling him he needs to stand up for himself and not be taken advantage of by store clerks.
HTC regular Matthew Conlon puts in a gently nuanced performance as Arnold, who despite his fiery anger and constant threats to move to Russia, still manages to be taken advantage of whenever he’s out in the world, especially by his boss and co-workers at a job as a janitor at a movie theater.
His roommate, Lucien P. Smith, can’t read anything but his own name on his library card, yet he keeps checking books out of the library, including a set of yearbooks from an agricultural college. Dorian M. O’Brien turns in a fine performance as Lucien, who, with the mental facility of a five year old, rambles on singing the alphabet song, looking for bunnies, and reciting his name from his library card.
Lucien is called to testify before a state senate subcommittee on the benefits of living in his communal residence, in a suit and a Spiderman tie. Time and place suddenly snap here, as they do in a few places throughout this play, when the stage goes dark and a spotlight appears on Lucien, who is suddenly full of tell about what it really means to live inside his character:
“I stand before you a middle-aged man in an uncomfortable suit, a man whose capacity for rational thought is somewhere between a five-year-old and an oyster,” he says. “I am retarded. I am damaged. I am sick inside from so many years of confusion, utter and profound confusion. I am mystified by faucets and radios and elevators and newspapers and popular songs. I cannot always remember the names of my parents. But I will not go away. And I will not wither because the cage is too small. I am here to remind the species.. of.. the species. I am Lucien Percival Smith. And without me, without my shattered crippled brain, you will never again be frightened by what you might have become. Or indeed, by what your future might make you.”
He then snaps back into his babbling, usual state.
Lest you be worried there may not be any romance in this show, fear not. Lucian and Arnold’s housemate, Norman Bulansky, tenderly and affectationally played by Scott Hofer, has a sweetheart, Sheila, played sweetly by Jessica Howard.
Norman, who is mentally disabled, works in a donut shop, where the other employees save the bits of donuts left over at the end of the day, which they let Norman take home. Because of this, he’s gained 17 pounds, but he’s also gained a girlfriend who likes donuts as much as he does.
Norman and Sheila spend a lot of time at the dances in the community center, which gives the theater the chance to up the ante on the emotionally charged 1980s soundtrack that pervades this production.
Here, too, the couple takes a momentary time out of mind, snapping from awkward shuffling to a coordinated waltz to the Disney theme, “When You Wish Upon A Star,” from Pinocchio, who, of course, wanted to be a real boy.
There’s one more resident here and he’s a doozy. Barry Klemper is a schizophrenic man with an abusive past that’s only hinted at by the appearance of his one-armed father, who uses the hand he has left to slap his son around.
Barry, played with a heartbroken sensitivity by Spencer Scott, has invented a career for himself as a golf pro in the hopes of impressing his father, who is coming to visit for the first time in nine years. He breathes golf, but can’t figure out why people keep quitting lessons with him, even though the lessons only cost $1.13 each. He drops the price to 25 cents, but the only taker is Lucian, who struggles to find a quarter to pay him.
Through all of this, Jack, played with youthful moral clarity by Paul Velutis, offers tender advice and guidance. He’s obviously fulfilled by the work, but when he sees his ex-wife driving around town in a BMW, he can’t help but wonder what he is missing by having chosen this career.
We leave the theater wondering how his confused, genuine, yearning and tender charges will fare without him around to guide them. All in all, it’s a show well-played.
“The Boys Next Door” continues through April 8 on Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. The Easter weekend matinee will be held on Saturday, March 31 at 2:30 p.m. instead of on Sunday. Adult tickets are $30, seniors are $25, under 35 are $20 and students under 21 are $10. Tickets can be purchased by calling 866.811.4111 or online at hamptontheatre.org.