THEATER REVIEWS : Laughter Calls Rarely Upon 'The Boys Next Door'

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Things are slightly askew with "The Boys Next Door" in Tom Griffin's charming seriocomedy. Three of the four adult roommates are developmentally handicapped. The fourth is an operative schizophrenic. They are living on their own--with a visiting supervisor--to find out how capable they are of existing in the normal world.

Things also are slightly askew in John Ferzacca's staging of the play at Orange Coast College. Although the humor--admittedly malapropisms, spoonerisms and ill-timed repetitions of key words--is integral to the tone of the work, Ferzacca has chosen to play down the laughs. It is this very real humor concerning the situation in which the handicapped find themselves that gives them emotional support against prejudice and lack of understanding from outside. While the seriousness at the core of the script is purposeful, it is the humor that gives the play humanity, and gives depth to its most poignant moments.

One of those moments comes during a handicapped community dance, when one of the roommates dances with a handicapped girl and suddenly they become what they are in their own minds, a couple standing straight and proud, almost an Astaire and Rogers in the swirling light of a mirror-ball. Ferzacca has not caught this moment, perhaps out of misguided kindness, for the girl Sheila (Felicia Fullerton) is played as merely a bit retarded, not the victim of cerebral palsy usually portrayed.

The other heartbreaking moment--an ugly, thoughtless visit by the schizophrenic's father--does not work here due to a thoughtless performance by Robert Doherty as the father. Doherty rattles off the lines in a manner usually surpassed after the first read-through.

The "boys" themselves are very well played. Kevin McFadden is a persistent albeit nervous Arnold, who works as a janitor in a movie house and objects to supplying sanitary napkins in the women's toilet when the men's doesn't get any. Bill Ertle has many touching moments as Lucien, who supervisor Jack says has a mind halfway between a 5-year-old's and a clam's, but who still proudly displays his library card and the many volumes of Department of Agriculture yearbooks he has checked out. Todd Kulczyk is particularly effective as the supervisor who loves the boys with all his heart, but still feels he must move on.

As Norman, Michael Hebler (padded so as to carry the 17 pounds Norman has gained since he started working at a doughnut shop) is the only actor who really catches on to the trick of the play's humor; his repetitions of "Oh, boy!" are as varied and full of meaning as they can be. Jaime Gonzales is the schizophrenic Barry, who thinks he's a golf pro, and though he might find a sharper edge in his energy, he has a forlorn quality that is just right.

The fairly large supporting cast is capable and believable in a production that balances everything right, except the giggles and tears that give Griffin's play its individuality.

* "The Boys Next Door," Orange Coast College Theatre Department, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. Ends Sunday. $5-$9. (714) 432-5880. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. Kevin McFadden: Arnold Wiggins

Bill Ertle: Lucien P. Smith

Michael Hebler: Norman Bulansky

Jaime Gonzales: Barry Klemper

Todd Kulczyk: Jack

Felicia Fullerton: Sheila

Robert Doherty: Mr. Klemper

An Orange Coast College Theatre Department production of the comedy drama by Tom Griffin, directed by John Ferzacca. Scenic, property and sound designs: David Scaglione. Lighting design: David Dunbrack. Costumes: Cathie Grothman. Stage manager: Jody Marler.

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