The world of developmentally disabled individuals and the lives they lead isn’t often material that is explored on the stage. But that’s exactly where Hampton Theatre Company (HTC) will be taking audiences on March 22 with the opening of its next production of the season — Tom Griffin’s “The Boys Next Door.”
The play premiered in the mid-1980s, long before the term “developmentally disabled” was common vernacular, and “The Boys Next Door” are four men with a range of mental disabilities who live together in a group home outside Boston. While it is a piece that is best handled with care and sensitivity, it’s been a long time coming for director Edward Brennan, HTC’s vice president.
“I’ve been familiar with this play for 30 years,” explained Brennan in a recent phone interview. “I saw another Long Island production and loved it. I thought for the right venue and the right time, I’d love to direct it.”
For two years running, the “The Boys Next Door” was considered for HTC, and long discussions followed about the sensitive nature of the material before the decision was finally made to go with it this year.
“This is a tender subject and we want to make sure to do it in the right way, with the right people and the right time,” said Brennan. “This felt like the right time.”
Capturing the unique nature of each of the four occupants of the group home is key to the script, and despite sharing a house and a general diagnosis, the four characters in the play each have their own specific issues. Brennan describes two of the characters, Norman Bulansky (Scott Hofer) and Lucien P. Smith (Dorian M. O’Brien) as being mentally challenged, a third, Barry Klemper (Spencer Scott), is schizophrenic, and the fourth, Arnold Wiggins (Matt Conlon), is obsessive/compulsive with perhaps some autistic or Asperger’s tendencies.
“What I love is they’re all different. There isn’t a stereotype among them and the characters are unique in their own way,” said Brennan. “That’s what I find so fascinating. It offers a way to delineate them and make them each special to the audience and there’s a really beautiful connection behind them.”
Charged with acting as caretaker for the four men and keeping the home organized and running smoothly is social worker Jack Palmer (Paul Velutis), who is, himself, struggling to decide whether or not he should move on to a new job. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter and the issues each of the characters face in trying to live independent lives, this is not a wholly serious play.
“I would say it’s a comedy with some very touching moments and very heartfelt moments,” said Brennan who adds that casting was of great importance. “We did see a lot of actors with these roles. Some came in with too much comedy and were too much of a caricature. I was able to find actors who were speaking to the heart of the characters and minimizing some of these stereotypes.”
Also important was casting of the supporting roles, including Norman’s girlfriend Sheila (Jessica Howard) who has disabilities as well and lives in a different group home, and Barry’s abusive father (Mike Boland) who makes a surprise appearance.
“It took two months to cast — usually, it’s a one-week process,” Brennan added. “There are nine actors in the show, so it’s a fairly big cast for a small comedy. I wanted the nine right actors. It’s a mix of HTC veterans and others who have never worked at HTC. We have East End actors, New York City actors and an Equity actor from Connecticut.”
Another fact to keep in mind with this production is the era in which it takes place. Because this play was very much of its time — written and set in the mid-‘80s — some of the language and references seem dated today. For example, Brennan says that early in the play, Jack, the social worker, directly addresses the audience by describing the specific disability of each of the men — including two whom he describes as “mentally retarded.”
“When he says those words, we realize that 30 years later we wouldn’t use that term at all,” said Brennan. “That’s hard to hear. I thought about updating some of the references, but the point of the play is to see how far we’ve come in how we label those folks and their challenges.”
“There are some things like that that hit us, but we decided to leave it in the ‘80s,” he added. “The costumes, music, set decoration are all ‘80s — and then there are references to things like beepers. But I think the audience will be pleased how far we’ve come in how we treat people with disabilities.”
In the end, Brennan is excited to finally see a show that he has long admired find its feet on the stage at HTC.
“I’ve loved it all these years — it comes together beautifully, the men’s relationships and how each of their stories is authentic but respectful,” he said. “We’re proceeding slowly, not jumping to conclusions, finding the piece along the way and layering it a little at a time rather than making big choices.”
“We’re moving swiftly but carefully,” he added.
And why not savor every moment. After all, Brennan’s had a very long time to think about this play.
“Yes I have,” he agreed.
The Hampton Theatre Company’s production of “The Boys Next Door” runs at the Quogue Community Hall from March 22 to April 8 with shows on Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m. (with a 2:30 p.m. matinee on March 31 and April 7) and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. (no performance April 1).
Special dinner and theater packages are offered in collaboration with the Westhampton, Southampton, Hampton Bays and Quogue libraries. Also available on April 7 is a special matinee lunch theater package with the Quogue Club at the Hallock House. For information visit hamptontheatre.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To reserve tickets, visit the website or call OvationTix at 1-866-811-4111.