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Playing the mentally challenged can be a challenge for the actor

From the Green Room: Playing the Mentally Challenged

Recently I began rehearsals for an upcoming production of Tom Griffen’s comedy-drama from the eighties, The Boys Next Door. The play concerns four young mentally challenged men living in a group home under the supervision of a young man who may or may not be a social worker, but whatever he is, he is definitely burnt out by his job. Dealing with the needs of the disabled can be frustrating. The residents include Arnold Wiggins, hyperactive and obsessive, whose nervousness affects his reasonably good mental abilities. He works in a movie theater. Lucien P. Smith is an African-American who functions on a third grade level. Norman Bulansky is developmentally disabled, but able to hold a job in a doughnut shop, although it must be said that working with doughnuts has had a significant effect on his weight. Barry Klemper, the last of the four residents, is a schizophrenic with a tenuous hold on reality who has been institutionalized a number of times.

The play itself has no real plot; it is a series of mostly comic vignettes in the lives of these four men. For example, Barry, who fantasizes that he is a golf pro, gives lessons in which he tries to explain how to handle a heckler in the gallery. The boys capture and kill a neighbor’s hamster thinking it’s a rat. Lucien attempts to recite the alphabet in preparation for a hearing on his status. Norman wants to invite a mentally challenged young lady he meets at a dance to his “pad.” Arnold is taken advantage of at the local supermarket. There are bleaker moments, most notably the scene near the end of the play where Barry receives a visit from his father, a crude, intemperate man who finds it impossible to deal with his son. Still it is the comic element that dominates.

Individual scenes can be hilarious if done well, and the play has become a favorite of community theatres, colleges, and the straw hat circuit both for its comic moments and its pathos. But the play does pose a real problem for the actor. It is very easy to play these characters with a wink and a nod, in effect making fun of them and their handicap. The audience may well laugh at their antics, but in the end may well wind up feeling guilty over that laughter. There is a fine line between ridicule and compassionate laughter. It is not really a question of political correctness; it is more a question of common humanity. It is essential for the actor to internalize the character’s challenges and treat them with respect. The laughter needs to come from the situation the character is placed in and what for him are legitimate reactions. It needs to be based in internal truth and not on external mockery. The actor must avoid going for the easy laugh.

When the play fails, it fails because directors allow the actors to settle for the cheap laugh at the expense of the character, rather than getting at the essential humanity of these men. This should not be a sentimentalized portrait of the lives of these men. They quarrel and fight. They make mistakes and suffer the consequences of those mistakes. They have the same needs that we all have; they do not always have the ability to meet those needs. It is not necessary to get the audience to feel sorry for them; it is necessary to get the audience to understand that they are not all that different from the rest of us.

There is a 1996 Hallmark Hall of Fame Movie version of the play, starring Nathan Lane as Norman, Courtney P. Vance as Lucien, Robert Sean Leonard as Barry, and Michael Jeter as Arnold. Tony Goldwyn plays Jack, the supervisor.

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