In 1989, Tom Griffin’s “The Boys Next Door” was the most produced play in America. This week, Orange Coast College will join the ranks of troupes that have mounted the compelling story of four mentally impaired men living on their own.
“If you ask me what the message (of the play) is, I haven’t a clue,” Griffin insisted recently on the phone from his home in Rhode Island. But with more than 500 productions staged and two more scheduled for Paris and Oslo this season, he has amply demonstrated that whatever it is, the message has universal appeal.
The play evolved from stories Griffin heard from a friend who was an administrator at group homes similar to the one in “Boys” (“some of the stories were heartbreaking, and some were very funny”) and from his own experiences.
“I grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of retarded people. My father had an attitude--you could feel sorry for them, you could make fun of them, but you couldn’t exclude them. If you threw a ball and the guy couldn’t catch it, you could say ‘you’re a bum’ but you couldn’t say ‘you can’t play.’ That’s really the worst thing, being told that you can’t play.”
Griffin knows a lot about playing. For 13 years, he was a professional actor, a full-time member of an award-winning regional company, Trinity Rep in Providence, R.I. He appeared in more than 25 productions there and estimates that he has clocked at least 10,000 hours on stage, between rehearsal and performance time. He isn’t acting any longer, but his years on stage certainly influenced his playwriting.
For one thing, he said, “I don’t write tiny roles because I played some of those. People have to do these plays.”
Once his writing career took off, he found he “just didn’t have time” for performing. “Acting is hard work. Eight performances a week.” Plus, he confided, “I just didn’t have the gold-ring mentality (as an actor). I discovered that I loved rehearsal, but performing was a drudgery. There’s something wrong with that.”
Griffin has been writing full time since 1986. His plays include “Amateurs,” “The Taking Away of Little Willie,” “Pasta” and “Einstein and the Polar Bear.” They have been produced on Broadway, Off-Broadway, in London’s West End, at regional theaters and in Asia, Africa and Australia. “Mrs. Sedgewick’s Head,” premiered at Trinity earlier this month.
“The Boys Next Door,” he said, has “been staged with a whole bunch of good people along the way. Woody Harrelson did it in New York. It was a very good production. The Pasadena Playhouse staged it. I liked working there. I even got a little plaque there. We’ll see if it survives the next earthquake.”
Whether the plaque stands or not, “Boys” seems destined for a long theatrical life. It seems “strangely indestructible,” Griffin mused in wonder.
* “The Boys Next Door” opens tonight at 8 in the Drama Lab Theatre at Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Continues Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through Oct. 10. $8 and $9. (714) 432-5640.