"Boys Next Door" touches hearts

In casual conversation, one would poke fun at the mentally challenged, and would be scrutinized and shunned for their insensitive humor and political incorrectness. Thus, watching a comedic play that's premise is a communal residence where four mentally handicapped adult men live might be slightly uncomfortable. "The Boys Next Door," a play written by Tom Griffin is one that on first thought might seem to have crass humor that takes jabs at those who are mentally challenged soon becomes heartfelt and tragic.

Santa Monica College's production, as directed by Pat Train Gage, ran last Friday thru Sunday to sold out audiences of all types.

With the help of quality writing, Jack (Joseph LeMieux), Arnold (Brad Golden), Barry (Eloy Mendez), Lucien (DeAngelo Paschal), and Norman (Jonathan Ramos) cracked up many laughs through use of grand character choices and good line intention.

The show opened to Arnold, a character diagnosed as "marginally retarded" having a slight nervous breakdown while trying to introduce his character. Golden's choice of giving the character slight neurosis was witty, however it did not play up as strong as the whimsy of Ramos' character.

Norman, a clever but mentally challenged character who works at a doughnut shop, was comical in all sorts. Ramos commendably meshed humor within his actions and lines to create memorable moments. In the second act, Norman invites Sheila (Alyssa Tyson) over to his apartment for a date. The physicality between the two characters leads to a warm interaction that reminds audiences that regardless of where you come from, spending time with people we care about is crucial to our sanity.

While the first act gave mostly back story and an uncomfortable questioning of how much the audience can laugh at lines in comparison to the response of a mentally challenged person to everyday scenarios, the second act played out strongly.

The peak moment that left most of the audience speechless was when Barry's father, Mr. Gonzales (Omar R. Contreras), visited his son for the first time in over five years. There is reference to an abusive relationship between the father and son but nothing is seen until the two are on stage by themselves and Mr. Gonzales strikes Barry. The moment was one that imprinted Mendez's fear stricken face into your brain soon giving you chills.

Both Contreras and Mendez made an impression as strong moving actors creating an uncomfortable tension that shined a light on the struggle of mental disabilities even in their own family.

Despite an awkward use of the side wings in the Studio Stage, the set and props illustrated the individual dynamic of each character. Arnold's attachment to his chair and rugs, Lucien's attachment to his books that he can't even read, Barry's attachment to his golf clubs, and Norman's attachments to his donuts all signified the reliance to a tangible object to maintain their sanity.

In essence, what originally seemed like an off color play soon treated audience with an odd surprise and warm feeling created by a cast and crew that really put their hearts in the show.