Good live performance thrives on tension, and the tension in MCT Community Theatre’s current production, The Boys Next Door, is the sneaky sort—a kind of gnawing guilt that gums at the entire production. The off-Broadway play, written by Tom Griffin in 1986, is a dramatic comedy revolving around the slapstick struggles of four assisted-living roommates: two are mentally handicapped, one is extremely schizophrenic, and another is a depressed compulsive. Griffin’s play aims for a poignant message—one that’s a bit too paint-by-numbers to land a huge impact—but it’s at its best shaping up and letting loose the personalities that populate the play. Each of the four leads is a charmingly flawed, sympathetic, good-natured character with his own endearing idiosyncrasies, and the sitcom-like day-to-day situations in which they find themselves end up serving as platforms for humor. But is it funny? Isn’t some of it—the missteps and mishaps of the mentally challenged—a little sad? Is the audience laughing with them, or are we sometimes caught uncomfortably laughing at them? Wrestling with this conundrum provides The Boys Next Door’s subtle tension.
The fact is that the audience—rightly or wrongly—is almost always laughing. It’s almost impossible not to, given the smooth direction of Don Kukla and Malcolm Lowe, and the keen rapport and impeccable comedic timing of the four leads. Eric Prim, who first performed with MCT in 1984, plays Arnold, the over-enunciating worrier with a habit of punctuating his sentences with an emphatic “I repeat,” despite the fact he’s not actually repeating anything. Arnold is the most grounded in the household, yet he’s easily suckered at his janitorial job and when grocery shopping; the play opens with him explaining why he’s brought home nine boxes of Wheaties, seven lettuce heads and one bag of charcoal briquettes. Donald Mogstad, another MCT veteran dating back to 1986, is the gentle, especially slow Lucien; he’s faced with the daunting prospect of speaking in front of a government committee threatening to pull his assisted living support. Bobby Gutierrez, who recently finished directing Montana Rep Missoula’s Bug, plays Norman, the increasingly overweight romantic who has a burgeoning crush and a habit of eating all the leftovers from the donut shop where he works. Finally, there’s Scott Reilly as Barry, a troubled delusional who currently believes he’s a golf pro and has been offering lessons at the apartment complex for 25 cents an hour. Individually, the characters are compelling and complete, and as a group, when the script hits its most amusing chaotic moments—such as cleaning the apartment or unexpectedly meeting a new neighbor—they are a whirlwind of charisma and personality. It’s easy to get swept up in the silliness of it all—until, that is, Griffin telegraphs an occasional reality check.
Without question, the comedic elements of The Boys Next Door are the highlights of the play—clean, honest, situational humor with the ring of popular primetime wit along the lines of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” but funnier. The only downside is that the drama is delivered in an overbearing “Very Special Episode” tone. The main bearer of weightiness is Jack Palmer (Christopher Torma), the tiring middle-aged caregiver whose narrative asides remind the audience that his job is difficult and that it all stops being funny after awhile. Torma’s performance isn’t the buzzkill it could be—he mixes well in the upbeat ensemble scenes—but the fact that Griffin felt it necessary to state the underlying reality of the play so blatantly is. “Show me, don’t tell me” is storytelling’s cardinal rule, and it’s broken here.
What is entirely more effective is when we get glimpses of Arnold, Lucien, Norman and Barry in situations where they imagine themselves flawless. For instance, when Norman courts his love interest, Sheila (Ashleen Hendrickson), at a regularly organized dance, it’s an awkward encounter. They trip over their conversation, trip on their own feet and trip past the mishaps of those around them—including Arnold, who has decided to drench himself with water to cover up the few sprinkles of urine he got on his pants in the bathroom. It’s chaotic and clumsy, but the sincerity between Sheila and Norman is inescapable. Then, as they dance hesitantly across the stage, the lighting seamlessly shifts, the music cranks up and the two break into a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers fantasy where we see how Sheila and Norman view the moment, or, perhaps what they hope it could be. Each character gets a dreamscape like this, and each time one slips into the story it delivers a gut check more solid than any of Jack Palmer’s asides.
But even these are dangerously ambiguous. When the dancing scene concluded the first act of Saturday’s performance—with Norman and Sheila hamming it up under disco lights—the audience was split: some still laughing at the duo’s over-the-top glamour switch, others struck cautiously silent, not sure if that was an uplifting or depressing way to break for intermission.
It’s that post-climactic confusion—a series of genuine laughs undercut by an intelligent nudge of reality—that gives the tension within The Boys Next Door its pull.
The Boys Next Door plays at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts through Sunday, March 26. Thursday and Friday shows start at 8 PM, Saturday shows at 2 and 8 PM and Sunday shows at 2 and 6:30 PM. Call 728-PLAY.