BWW Reviews: If Only Your Neighbors Were THE BOYS NEXT DOOR
I always try to be as unbiased as possible when I review a show, but given the subject matter of The Boys Next Door, the outstanding comedy/drama currently playing its final weekend at Sam Bass Theatre, there is no way I can remain unbiased this time around. Before you stop reading, let me explain. The Boys Next Door is an episodic look at the lives of four men with mental disabilities, two of whom have Downs Syndrome, all of whom live together in a group home. My only sibling, the beautiful and inspiring Erica Davis, has Downs as well, which means I have 30 years of experience with the subject matter. I've watched my sister develop and mature. I've laughed at her jokes (even the unintentional ones), rolled my eyes at her constant obsession with the Backstreet Boys, and applauded when she learned how to water ski, a talent that took her years to achieve. I also spoke at her wedding when she married Benjamin, an amazing differently abled person in his own right and the best brother in law I never expected to have.
Whether at their best or worst, Erica and Ben are always honest and authentic, and that honesty and authenticity is what The Boys Next Door revolves around. As Tom Griffin's outstanding text requires that "normal" actors play the four central roles, getting that sense of honesty is tough. The actors must show how quirky and unique these men are but must keep the characters from becoming offensive caricatures.
In essence, my bias regarding the subject matter shouldn't help the production at all. My closeness to two exceptional differently abled people makes me extra critical about the work on the Sam Bass stage. That's why I'm so pleased to state that I have absolutely nothing to criticize. It's clear that everyone involved with this production wish to show Austin audiences just how amazing people with Downs and other mental disabilities are, and the cast accomplishes that mission flawlessly.
Tom Griffin's play certainly gives the cast much to work with. Each of the characters is realistically fleshed out and fully realized. Arnold is obsessive compulsive, neurotic, and hyperactive, and while the character is designed to occasionally get on our nerves as he rants and raves, we still feel a great deal of compassion for him, largely in part to Christian Huey's nuanced and purposeful performance. As the schizophrenic Barry, who believes himself to be a golf pro, R. Michael Clinkscales doesn't get quite as much to work with during the first act but gives an alarming, poignant performance in the second act, as does Oswald Staube as Barry's father. As Norman, the donut and keys obsessed third roommate, Brett Weaver gets plenty of laughs, but he truly excels in the moments involving Norman's love life. Watching Norman and his girlfriend Sheila (the fantastic Sara DeSoto) navigate the awkwardness of dates and dances is absolutely adorable. Robert King Jr. also excels as Lucien, the most developmentally disabled gent in the house. The character of Lucien is so downright likeable, but given the extremes of his disabilities, it's challenging to capture the character without him seeming exaggerated, caricatured, or stereotyped. Thankfully, King is more than capable of navigating those precarious waters. Adam Rowland has a similarly challenging role as the guy's social worker, Jack. It's clear that Jack loves and adores each of these men, though occasionally the challenges of caring for them get the best of him. The more agitated and frustrated Jack gets with this quartet of men, the more we should dislike him, but Rowland is able to portray him in a way that is real, relatable, and understandable.
While I'm convinced this cast would be able to bring these characters to life without much guidance, some credit must be given to their director, Eric Nelson. Even if you skipped over his director's note (he mention that his nephew has Downs Syndrome), odds are you'd assume that Nelson has a personal connection to these characters and the subject matter. There's a thoughtful, personal touch that permeates the work, and it's clear that Nelson wishes to show these characters exactly as they are.
Anyone who's spent a significant amount of time with someone with Downs Syndrome or any mental disability for that matter will notice the incredible tenderness and warmth that exudes from them. The Boys Next Door captures that heart, and you'd have to be heartless for it not to capture yours.
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
THE BOYS NEXT DOOR plays Sam Bass Theatre at 600 Lee St., Round Rock now thru Saturday, March 8th. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are $15-$18. For tickets and information, please visit www.sambasstheatre.org.