Tom Griffin's 1988 hit The Boys Next Door can still make you laugh, make you cry, make you cringe, and make you feel like you're on the 71 Negley and missed your stop. After nearly 20 years, one might hope that it would no longer be an eye-opener that mentally challenged people being "mainstreamed" into society in group homes are human beings. But to a lot of folks, it still seems to be a surprise.
It's a very tricky play that the Little Lake Theatre Company is tackling. The everyday behavior and challenges of people with mental retardation are too close to the "screwball antics" that we've so long associated with comedy. Slapstick doesn't involve pain, but real exploitation does. So is it OK to laugh when one of the four central characters is suckered into buying a lot of stuff he doesn't need? How about when he's physically threatened? Director Sunny Disney Fitchett mostly succeeds in guiding the laughs "with" and away from "at" the characters, but it's an uncomfortable ride.
It helps that there's a great cast, especially Art DeConciliis, almost scarily on target as the obsessive and somewhat hyperactive Arnold. Scott A. Nunnally has a literally stand-out turn when he steps out of character to explain the inner feelings and confusion of an adult with the mental capacity of a 5-year-old. (Playwright Griffin is not particularly subtle, however, nor should he be trusted as a diagnostician.) Bob Rak plays a jolly, mildly retarded man who works in a doughnut shop, and is so much like the group-home folks I see on the Negley that it really is a jolt, a pleasant one, when we peek inside his view of how he sees his dance with his girlfriend (Janet Smith, also right on). Joe Jasek grapples better with the delusions than with the pain of his character, the only household member of "normal" intelligence.
Boys is mainly a character study, built on the slim narrative thread of a rapidly burning-out social worker, stolidly portrayed by Jesse Warnick. Completing the cast are a menacing Dale Irvin, befuddled Therese Courtney and multi-cast Bethany Kohl and Richard Savoldi. The production, like the play itself, could use a little more finesse, but the manipulativeness doesn't quite hit you over the head, and the humor is genuine and generous.
The Boys Next Door continues through Sat., June 30. Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Dr. (off Route 19), Canonsburg. 724-745-6300 or www.littlelake.org