Humane play examines lives of the retarded

The Boys Next Door Comedy by Tom Griffin. Directed by Josephine R. Abady. ``The Boys Next Door'' is a humane comedy with compassionate concerns. A Playbill note describes the background of the new Tom Griffin play at the Lamb's Theatre: ``In the care and training of the mentally retarded the trend today is away from institutions and toward group or foster homes.... The goal is not to shield mentally handicapped people from the world but rather to provide a secure home base from which retarded people may reach out to explore the world and contribute to it.''

The secure home base of ``The Boys Next Door'' is a cheerfully unprententious little house located somewhere in New England and presided over by a social worker named Jack (Dennis Boutsikaris). However his patience may be tried, the good-hearted counselor manages nearly always to preserve the humor and authority needed to enforce a reasonable degree of discipline on his simple but headstrong charges.

Two of the residents hold paying jobs. Arnold (Joe Grifasi), a compulsive shopper and worrier, is a cleaning man at a local movie house. Norman (Josh Mostel) works at a doughnut shop and has the girth to prove it. Barry (Joe Urla), whose condition verges on mental disturbance, fancies himself a golf pro. The slightly older Lucien (William Jay), the sole black resident, is inordinately proud of his green library card and the ``hard books'' he borrows but cannot read. ``The Boys Next Door'' intermingles the experiences and crises common to the group in a series of fluidly changing scenes that can be as touching as they are funny - at times simultaneously.

Jack, who serves as occasional narrator-commentator, describes a nearby recreation hall where Wednesday night dances are held as ``the saddest place ... or the happiest.'' The observation is substantiated in the encounters between Norman and Sheila, played with awkward tenderness by Mr. Mostel and Christine Estabrook.

While avoiding condescension, false pathos, and sentimentality, Mr. Griffin - aided by Josephine R. Abady's sure direction of an admirable cast - particularizes the sometimes anguishing predicaments of his characters. Lucien must testify before a Senate committee concerned with administering public aid. Barry's visit from his bullying father (Ed Setrakian) leads to the young man's total breakdown. Jack's impending departure for another career devastates the small household and dramatizes yet another aspect of the problems inherent in providing care for people with special needs.

Besides those already mentioned, the cast includes John Wylie and Laurinda Barrett, each of whom plays triple roles. The scenery was designed by David Potts, lighting by Michael Chybowski and costumes by C.L. Hundley. ``The Boys Next Door'' premi`ered in 1986 at Princeton's McCarter Theatre. The present production is credited to the Berkshire Theatre Festival, of which Ms. Abady has been artistic director for the past nine years.

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