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The Retarded Life of ‘Boys Next Door’

Tom Griffin takes a look inside the world of mentally retarded adults in “The Boys Next Door,” opening tonight at the Pasadena Playhouse.

“I had a friend who worked in a group home with retarded adults,” explained the Rhode Island-based playwright. “He used to tell me stories--some of them devastating, many of them hilarious. Also, I grew up with retarded people in my neighborhood. Of course, a lot of this play is invented. I did what all writers do: Start with a story someone tells you--and when you finish, it’s unrecognizable.”

At the center of the story are four residents of the home and their counselor. “One of the men is quite retarded,” said Griffin, who is adapting the play into a film script for director Norman Jewison. “One is marginally retarded. One is a schizophrenic who doesn’t belong there. And one is retarded, overweight and in love.”

Griffin, who has dealt with the subject of mental retardation before (in his “The Taking Away of Little Willie,” Taper Playworks series, 1979), stressed that the condition takes a back seat to the relationships and problems of the characters. “My father used to say (of the retarded), ‘You can play with them, get mad at them--but you cannot exclude them.’ That’s the most damaging thing you can do to anyone.”

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Although he originally thought he was writing a small play, Griffin has found “Boys” effective on a grand scale: After its debut at Princeton in 1986, the play moved to the Berkshire Theatre Festival--and now, he says, it has received “around 35 productions” across the country. (This staging, directed by Josephine Abady, has just moved intact from Cleveland.)

“I think the reason for its appeal is that it’s propelled by humor, not maudlin stuff,” Griffin noted. “Also, a lot of plays and TV and movies aren’t about something. This is.”

PAY WHAT YOU CAN: Customers can select their own ticket prices at today’s 3 p.m. performance of “Bocon!” at the Mark Taper Forum. Information: (213) 972-7373.

BRECHT’S BACK: Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal” (1919) gets a new revival from New York’s Project III Ensemble, opening this weekend at the Callboard Theatre.

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“It’s not Brecht’s most well-known work,” noted director Charles Otte. “It’s his first play; as such the seeds of his future work can be found here: anti-Expressionism, but using Expressionism as a means to accomplish that end. It deals with a poet named Baal: one of the first anti-heroes, a negative Everyman who goes through life taking advantage of everyone. He ends up killing a couple of women, his best friend, and drinking his way into oblivion--in a funny kind of way. It’s quite black humor.”

Otte, whose collaborators have included Philip Glass, Andrei Serban and Peter Sellars, counts himself as a longtime Brecht fan.

“His work encompasses so many aspects of theater,” Otte said. “Brecht believed in theater that communicated with an audience on more than a story (telling) level--but at the same time, he hated the idea of an intellectual exercise with people sitting around discussing the meaning of life. So he made use of it as theater: wrote pieces that not only present a story or event but commented on it--perhaps in song or poetry. You never lose that sense of theatricality, of being live. It says, ‘This is performance .’ ”

CRITICAL CROSSFIRE: Reza Abdoh and Mira-Lani Oglesby’s “Minamata,” a multimedia piece about environmental pollution, has opened at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Abdoh directs. (See related article, Page 4.)

The Times’ Don Shirley found that “images and sounds sometimes coalesce into arresting patterns that begin to make a giant statement about the cultural imperatives that plunder our planet. Just as often, though, the primary purpose appears to be to show off the fecundity of Abdoh’s imagination and the extraordinary versatility of his cast. . . . Even at its worst, however, this is a remarkable production.”

From Tom Jacobs in The Daily News: “This latest work by the imaginative young director is 30-40 minutes too long. Like a lot of non-linear theater, it is at times self-indulgent and unfocused. And yet, unlike a lot of non-linear theater, it is unquestionably about something. This is an intellectually probing work, as well as a genuinely angry one.”

Said the Herald Examiner’s Richard Stayton: "(It) is remarkable, courageous, an invaluable artistic reaction to our perilously self-indulgent age. Everyone who is interested in the survival of humankind and of theater must witness it. But there is a delicate line between outrage and the outrageous. So ‘Minamata’ is also repetitive, ridiculous, a maddeningly opaque defiance of audience identification. . . .”

Grumped Steve Mikulan in the L.A. Weekly: “Abdoh has in the past succeeded in wedding the most striking imagery with tauntingly enigmatic texts. In ‘Minamata’ he has failed to join the two, producing instead a series of startling pictures that vainly chase an elusive story. The result is a catastrophic bore.”

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Said the Orange County Register’s Jeff Rubio: “The hurricane rush of images and ideas can be very confusing, even desensitizing. And after one viewing it’s impossible to say how much is simply the result of confusion on the author’s part. No matter. Even if one becomes a bit numbed by the torrent, ‘Minamata’ is a full-scale assault on theatrical conventions that reverberates in the memory.”

John Mahoney of the Downtown News found “a very polished production of a self-indulgent conception. One is reminded that Laurence Olivier might well give a dazzling, varied and disciplined performance of the telephone Yellow Pages, but we wouldn’t be likely to shout ‘Author! Author!’ ”

And from the Outlook’s Sandra Kreiswirth: "(Abdoh) has pushed his own envelope with two hours of exciting, confusing, self-important, lyrical, moralistic theater in a startling production not soon to be forgotten. You’ll either be fascinated by what you see--although there’s too much of it--or you’ll sneak out early. There’s not a lot of middle ground here.”


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