“I can’t tell if this is the saddest place I’ve ever been or the happiest,” social worker Jack observed. That’s a good summation of The Boys Next Door. It contained both a heart-rending and heart-warming story. I attending this opening night performance at the Bridge Players Theatre Company on February 1st. Edwin Howard directed.
The Boys Next Door related the stories of several men living at a group home. Arnold Wiggins (played by Stephen Jackson) possessed a compulsive and nervous disposition. Mentally retarded middle aged man Lucien P. Smith (Jay Scott Burton) had a fascination with books. Norman Bulanski (Matthew Brent) fixated on donuts and locks. Schizophrenic Barry Klemper (Jeff Skomsky) believed himself a golf instructor.
Case worker Jack Palmer (Thomas Everett) attended to these clients. The continuous struggles of helping these men fit into society strained him. He confessed to feeling burned out. “Either they deserve better or I deserve better,” he mused. Maintaining his composure proved a challenge.
Bridge Players’ production featured some powerful performances. Stephen Jackson played a convincing compulsive obsessive personality. His repeated counting, quick pacing and even faster talking captured Arnold’s essence. It’s difficult to speak clearly when delivering a machine-gun like barrage of words. I credit Mr. Jackson as he spoke in a way that I could still understand him.
Jay Scott Burton delivered the most powerful speech in the show. After his genuine portrayal of a man with mental deficiencies, he stood upon a soap box. Mr. Burton delivered a disquisition on the plight of the mentally retarded. He animated playwright Tom Griffin’s dialog with authority.
Matthew Brent played the lovable donut aficionado, Norman Bulanski. Perhaps, because of that, his character was the only one with a love interest. His scenes with Lisa Croce (as Sheila, the resident of a different group home) made for the show’s most sentimental. I give Mr. Howard and the performers credit for not allowing this relationship to deteriorate into melodrama. Their portrayal of the conflict that resulted when Ms. Croce innocently asked for Mr. Brent’s keyes aided in that regard.
The most moving scene occurred at the end of Act One. Mr. Bulanski and Ms. Croce danced together. They performed a well-choreographed routine. They showed each character’s affection for each other by smiling the entire time. So did the audience.
Jeff Skomsky played an exceptional Barry. Through the serious way he discussed “business” and conducted his golf lessons, I had difficulty telling why the character was even in the group home. Then Barry found out that the father he hadn’t seen in nine years was coming to visit him. At this point, Mr. Skomsky brought out the character’s inner turmoil.
Mr. Skomsky kept a blank look on his face while staring straight ahead. In an eerie monotone he told unbelievable stories about Barry’s father. He described “Kipper” Klemper as a third base coach for the Yankees, a defensive coach for the 49ers and Ted Williams’ fishing buddy. The performer’s interpretation of Barry’s mental state showed that the two men’s reunion would not end happily.
This segued into the show’s most memorable scene. Russ Walsh played Mr. Klemper as socially inept and crass. When he asked Jack to leave the two alone, Mr. Everett paused and gave him an uncomfortable look. Mr. Walsh then showed the dark side of “Kipper” Klemper’s personality. He and Mr. Skomsky played a very unsettling scene together. The emotions involved and the quality of the acting made it very difficult to watch.
With characters of this nature, humor becomes a challenge. The cast and director conveyed it respectfully. One of the most comical moments occurred when a neighbor (played by Andrea Veneziano) visited. While sitting on the couch sandwiched between Mr. Brent and Mr. Skomsky she asked if they’d seen her son’s hamster. I’ll avoid giving away spoilers, but the startled looks on their faces showed that they had.
The production also included some spectacular lighting. It figured. Bob Beaucheane is one of the best lighting designers in South Jersey community theatre. The Boys Next Door showed why. The multi-colored lights that simulated the dance hall looked very authentic. It complimented the music very well. (Mr. Beaucheane also handled the sound design.) The full moon projected on the backdrop created a superb ambiance for the outdoor night scenes.
Bridge Players Theatre Company President Timothy Kirk rounded out the ensemble.
Director Edwin Howard wrote in the playbill:
In today’s world of tolerance and acceptance, sometimes we forget that everyone has wants and needs. Just because simple things are harder to do for some people, doesn’t mean they are any less human and deserve any less care and love.
The Boys Next Door is a solid commentary on these sentiments. The show runs through February 16th at the Bridge Players Theatre Company.