One need look no further than the fact that Tom Griffin's 1983 play The Boys Next Door was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie in 1996 to grasp the basic flavor of this work about four mentally disabled roommates and their part-time chaperone. The sentimentality here is as ready at hand as maple syrup at an IHOP; every time the characters hit a rough spot, a quick squirt of sugary, heart-squeezing cheer is guaranteed to follow. Griffin's play is a comedy, after all, but he never misses an opportunity to remind us that we're laughing with these characters, not at them, though sometimes the difference seems negligible.
Sheri Grace Wenger's production at the Village Playhouse, directed by her son Ryan Ahlert, goes to great pains (sometimes overt ones) to project its awareness of that difference.
In the play, social worker Jack (Scott Haithcock), regularly looks in on his four charges, who always seem to be up to some sort of comedic mischief, as they must if comedy's the aim. The dim, doughboyish Norman (Robbie Thomas) sneaks in donuts under his shirt from the shop where he works. Neurotic Arnold (Fred Hutter) obsesses over the apartment's floor rugs and has "concerns" about most everything. Smarty schizophrenic Barry (Jamie Smithson) believes himself a pro golf instructor, and barely functional Lucien (Ross Magoulas) is an elderly man whose capacity for rational thought, we're told, "is somewhere between a five-year-old and an oyster."
The engine driving Boys is twofold: newly-divorced Jack is nearing his own wit's end with the demands of the low-paying job, despite his affection for the men, and Barry's absentee father (Andy Cohen) has written that he's about to pay his first visit in nine years. Well and good, but the trouble with Griffin's play is that every time it gets a good head of steam going, it slams on the breaks so Jack can bust through the fourth wall and out of the scene entirely for a few minutes of rote, superfluous exposition.
"To tell the truth, I'm starting to feel a little burned out," Jack informs us near the beginning of the play. Wouldn't we rather be shown than told this? Instead, Haithcock spends most of his nonspeaking time on stage letting us know its okay to laugh by smiling indulgently and shaking his head at the boys' child-like antics, in most unburned-out fashion. Later, he tells us how, in his frustration with his job, he recently threw a toaster across his kitchen at home. Seeing that action could provide us a powerful visual window into Jack's emotional state, but Griffin artlessly shoehorns it into a talky monologue between scenes instead.
These weaknesses are shored up somewhat by a strong cast and Ahlert's direction. In preparing for the show, the team spent time studying and interacting with mentally disabled residents in town, and it shows. Robbie Thomas has superb physical presence as the tubby, donut-happy Norman, and his scenes with his crush, another facility resident named Sheila (Monique Waters) shine. Fred Hutter is also convincing as nervous, obsessive Arnold, though not as physically exacting. Ross Magoulas is a longtime veteran of Charleston stages and a fine actor, but he's ill-served in this role, a character whom Griffin wrote to be a Down syndrome-affected black man. Lucian's dialogue is clearly that of a deeply handicapped, barely educated African American. Yet Magoulas's Lucien seems to suffer from simple senility and an incongruous speech impediment.
As Bobby, Jamie Smithson walks away with every scene he's in. There's a lot of Jim Carrey about Smithson, both physically and vocally, but he's careful not to overdo it. It's so easy to laugh at his exertions as a frustrated golf "pro" that his more dramatic moments hit like a truckful of bricks when they come — and his blank demeanor in the final scenes feels like a deprivation.
While the actors are occasionally hard to hear from the back of the house (a conversation about another female resident's conspicuous "tick" had me wondering if it was also a home for hermaphrodites for five full minutes), the set — standard-issue apartment complex living quarters — is effective without drawing attention to itself, and ably handles quite a few slammed doors. Yet at two hours and 15 minutes, The Boys Next Door may feel a little long — a tad too scattered, smothered, and covered, considering it could accomplish almost as much with one thrown toaster and half as much chatter at the audience.