Boys Keep Up Values 'Next Door'

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Playwright Tom Griffin calls his "The Boys Next Door," at Long Beach Playhouse's Studio Theatre, a comedy, and to a great extent it is. But, as in real life, laughter mixes with tears in this play about four mentally challenged men living in a sort of halfway apartment, with one foot under supervision, the other in the outside world.

Three of the men are developmentally disabled to some degree or another. The fourth is a schizophrenic with delusions of being a golf pro. They struggle valiantly to lead normal lives, but it's an uphill battle. When their personalities clash, they aren't that much different from the rest of us, and that is certainly one of Griffin's points.

There is a fifth cog in this wheel, the guys' supervisor, Jack, whose personal problems have led to burnout, but whose affection for his charges is unmistakable. Most of the time he sees himself reflected in the day-to-day chaos in the apartment.

When director Russell St. Clair gets into the play's scenes themselves, his insights are on the button. But he allows overly long blackouts between scenes, which destroy the play's natural rhythms. Michael Keith Allen's apartment setting is authentic and mostly workable, but side entrances for quick exits by the actors would have helped speed up some of these changes.

As the four roommates, the actors are believable, charming and forthright, which eases any possible guilt an audience might feel in laughing at their foibles. Al Nowicki stands out as the admittedly very nervous Arnold, whose involved schemes usually backfire and strengthen his firm decision to move to Russia, where he'll be understood.

*

Greg Gion is strong as Norman, whose job in a doughnut shop doesn't help in his battle with his weight, and Donald Wakefield is very touching as Lucien, who is unable to read but is as proud as punch of his new green library card. As Jack, the supposedly normal supervisor who has his own little mental tics, Andrew Hernon gives a fluid and honest performance that balances his character well between his two worlds.

On the night this production was reviewed, understudy Brent Scarpo played Barry, the schizophrenic, and his performance was intricate and powerful, from Barry's self-protective facade in early scenes to his total breakdown and retreat from reality in the strong scene between him and his thoughtless father (Jack Battersby). It's the evening's best moment, and Scarpo and Battersby work it beautifully together.

Therese McLaughlin is also very strong as Sheila, the gal Norman wants to date. She is delicately funny and touching in her openness. Doubling in various roles, Milton Polsky and Julie Rosenberg are sometimes effective.

* "The Boys Next Door," Studio Theatre, Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees Jan. 12 and 19, 2 p.m. Ends Jan. 25. $10-$15. (310) 494-1616. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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"The Boys Next Door,"

Al Nowicki: Arnold Wiggins

Donald Wakefield: Lucien P. Smith

Andrew Hernon: Jack

Greg Gion: Norman Bulansky

Brent Scarpo: Barry Klemper

Therese McLaughlin: Sheila

Jack Battersby: Mr. Klemper

Milton Polsky: Mr. Hedges/Mr. Corbin/Sen. Clarke

Julie Rosenberg: Mrs. Fremus/Mrs. Warren/Clara

A Long Beach Playhouse production of Tom Griffin's comedy-drama. Directed by Russell St. Clair. Scenic design: Michael Keith Allen. Lighting design: Frank McKown. Sound design: Antonio Allah. Stage manager: Jules Christian.

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