Norman Bulansky and his cute friend Sheila would make exceptional parents. Their substantial developmental disabilities betray a childlike delight in life, an ideal legacy to pass on to kids. The subject's come up a time or two as a product of Norman's wistfulness. But the state has little use for such sloppy sentiment, trading the prospect of familial bliss for the false security within the bureaucratic mire.
This plausible outgrowth of a speech by Norman's caretaker illustrates what's right with The Boys Next Door, Tom Griffin's limber comedy and the season closer at Lamb's Players Theatre. The play focuses on the exploits of four men thrust together in a group home for the disabled, and Griffin paints his principals with an extremely broad brush. Two of 'em-one delusional, one obsessive-compulsive-don't belong at the facility so much as under a doctor's care. Griffin smartly put them in the residence as another jab at administrative idiocy.
But even as great director Kerry Meads displays an iron grip on Griffin's terseness, the topical relevance to the script is spotty. Jack Palmer, the men's custodian, talks a good game about the state's cruel transgressions into social work (for example, the women at the center have been forcibly sterilized). But such references are few and far between, occurring often enough to arouse yet too seldom to constitute a solid theme.
It's hard to get a handle on Griffin's intent-meanwhile, the production values provide some creditable diversions of their own.
Nicely underplayed by Jon Lorenz, the disillusioned Jack laments the state's abandonment of its disadvantaged, eventually leaving the profession to the hues and cries of the men. At that point, thanks to Meads, we get a decisive aggregate of the men's bents and affectations.
Arnold Wiggins (Paul Maley) is a terminally anal, self-righteous nudnik who rags on everybody and wants to move to Russia; he likely has the most in common with Barry Klemper (Nick Cordileone), a self-styled golf legend whose schizoid fantasies have him somewhere out on the Pro-Am. Norman (the outstanding Robert Smyth), an attentive but very slow-witted chap with a thing for doughnuts, eyes Sheila with the same aplomb exhibited by Lucien Smith (Keith Jefferson). Lucien is an agriculturally inclined retarded man who faces official scrutiny on his ability to live in the mainstream.
Following his impassioned talk before a state commission, Lucien winds up back in custody. Through his character, Griffin vaguely seems to say that the state's methods of integration do little to improve the clients' lives.
A series of episodes play off extremely well-Lucien's pride following his procurement of a library card; Barry's eventual loss of sanity under his father's brutal hand; the sweet little waltz between Norman and Sheila at a group function; and Arnold's exasperation at the hands of his bully theater manager boss. But without more social commentary, they morph into top-heavy comic vignettes. Too harsh an indictment of the state, and the play trades its colors for topical drama-but so what?
Were he a comedic author, the late Tennessee Williams probably could have written this script. Williams championed the intrinsic value of the downtrodden (he himself was gay) and similar characters grace highly situational scenes of Boys (Jack is in some ways reminiscent of the brooding Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie). But Williams would have moved the piece a step further, grinding his people's idealism under the weight of their own circumstances. With all due respect, Griffin should take note.
(And so should you: By the time you read this, Deborah Gilmour Smyth will have replaced her very good understudy Pamela Britton in the role of Sheila.)
If topical relevance drives your taste for live performance, this likely won't satisfy-you'll pretty much walk out the same unremarkable door you came in. Should you seek a couple hours' diligent stagecraft under one of San Diego's finest directors, by all means go see The Boys Next Door. ©
This review is based on the performance of Oct. 12. The Boys Next Door will run through Nov. 16 at Lamb's Players Theatre, Coronado. $20-$40. 619-437-0600.