Comic, Tragic Look at 'Boys Next Door'

Tom Griffin's "The Boys Next Door" probably should not work as well as it does. In some ways, it's predictable, politically correct, movie-of-the-week stuff.

Yet a group called Neurotic Young Urbanites has tapped the most moving and sincere elements in Griffin's melodrama about four mentally impaired men sharing an apartment. The result, at the Zephyr Theatre, is a seamless and enormously entertaining journey into a world that's hard to capture convincingly onstage.

The play's main point is that the labels we put on the mentally impaired rob them of humanity, hindering rather than helping their efforts to become independent.

Even so, Griffin shrewdly draws upon these very character types, caught in funny and sometimes tragic situations: a compulsive paranoid (Patrick Fischler), a mildly retarded doughnut shop worker (John Barba), a severely retarded man-child (Marcus Turner) and a schizophrenic golf pro (Paul Wittenburg).

Providing perspective and narration is the foursome's beleaguered social worker, Jack (the soulful Christopher Shea). "I don't know if this is the happiest place in the world or the saddest," he says.

Much of the script's success depends on the playwright's skill in moving between comedy and pathos. But this cast, under Darren Weatherford's direction, gives the effort an extra charge with honest, beautifully textured portrayals. A tender dance between one of the residents and his would-be girlfriend counts as one memorable moment among many.

* "The Boys Next Door," Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Aug. 20. $15. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours.

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