Characters and Themes of Griffin's "The Boys Next Door"

"The boys next door" MAHS 2010 one-act opening night

Nic McPhee/Flickr/CC BY SA 2.0

The Boys Next Door was written in the early 1980s by Tom Griffin. Originally titled, Damaged Hearts, Broken Flowers, the play was fortunately renamed and revised for a 1987 production at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. The Boys Next Door is a two-act comedy-drama about four intellectually disabled men who live together in a small apartment — and Jack, the caring social worker who is on the verge of career burn-out.


Actually, there isn't too much plot to speak of. The Boys Next Door takes place over the course of two months. The play offers scenes and ​vignettes to illustrate the daily lives of Jack and his four mentally challenged wards. Most scenes are presented in ordinary dialogue, but sometimes the characters speak directly to the audience, as in this scene when Jack explains the condition of each man he supervises:

JACK: For the past eight months I've been supervising five group apartments of the mentally handicapped... The idea is to introduce them into the mainstream. (Pause.) Most of the time, I laugh at their escapades. But sometimes the laughter wears thin. The truth is they're burning me out.
(In another scene...)
JACK: Lucien and Norman are retarded. Arnold is marginal. A depressive by trade, he will fool you sometimes, but his deck has no face cards. Barry, on the other hand, really doesn't belong here in the first place. He's a grade A schizophrenic with a chronic history of institutions.

The main conflict stems from Jack's realization that he needs to move on in his life.

JACK: You see, the problem is that they never change. I change, my life changes, my crises change. But they stay the same.

Of course, it should be noted that he has not worked as their supervisor for very long — eight months at the play's beginning. It seems he has difficulty finding his own life's purpose. He sometimes eats lunch by himself at the side of the railroad tracks. He complains about bumping into his ex-wife. Even when he manages to find another job as a traveling agent, the audience is left to decide whether or not this will provide fulfillment.

"The Boys Next Door" Characters

Arnold Wiggins: He is the first character whom the audience meets. Arnold exhibits several OCD traits. He is the most articulate of the group. More than the other roommates, he tries to function in the outside world, but sadly many people take advantage of him. This occurs in the first scene when Arnold has returned from the market. He asks the grocer how many boxes of Wheaties he should purchase. The clerk cruelly suggests that Arnold buy seventeen boxes, so he does. Whenever he is dissatisfied with his life, he declares that he will be moving to Russia. And in Act Two, he actually runs away, hoping to catch the next train to Moscow.

Norman Bulansky: He's the romantic of the group. Norman works part-time at the doughnut shop, and because of all the free donuts, he has gained a lot of weight. This worries him because his love-interest, a mentally handicapped woman named Sheila, thinks that he is fat. Twice during the play, Norman meets Sheila at a community center dance. With each encounter, Norman becomes bolder until he asks her on a date (although he doesn't call it a date). Their only real conflict: Sheila wants his set of keys (which don't unlock anything in particular), but Norman won't give them up.

Barry Klemper: The most aggressive of the group, Barry spends most of his time boasting about being a Golf Pro (although he does not yet own a set of clubs). At times, Barry seems to fit in with the rest of society. For example, when he puts up a sign-up sheet for golf lessons, four people sign up. But as the lessons continue, his pupils realize that Barry is out of touch with reality, and they abandon his class. Throughout the play, Barry waxes on about the wonderful qualities of his father. However, towards the end of Act Two, his Dad stops by for his first-ever visit, and the audience witnesses the brutal verbal and physical abuse that obviously worsens Barry's already fragile condition.

Lucien P. Smith: The character with the severest case of mental disability among the four men, Lucien is the most child-like of the group. His verbal capacity is limited, like that of a four-year-old. And yet, he has been summoned before the Health and Human Services Subcommittee because the board might suspend Lucien's Social Security benefits. During this panel discussion, as Lucien incoherently talks about his Spiderman tie and stumbles through his ABCs, the actor playing Lucien stands and delivers a powerful monologue that eloquently speaks for Lucien and others with mental impairments.

LUCIEN: I stand before you, a middle-aged man in an uncomfortable suit, a man whose capacity for rational thought is somewhere between a five-year-old and an oyster. (Pause.) I am retarded. I am damaged. I am sick inside from so many hours and days and months and years of confusion, utter and profound confusion.

It is perhaps the most powerful moment of the play.

"The Boys Next Door" in Performance

For community and regional theaters, mounting an acclaimed production of The Boys Next Door is no easy task. A quick search online will produce a wide range of reviews, some hits, and many misses. If critics take an issue with The Boys Next Door, the complaint usually stems from the actors' portrayal of the mentally challenged characters. Although the above description of the play may make it seem as though The Boys Next Door is a heavy-handed drama, it's actually a story filled with very funny moments. But for the play to work, the audience must be laughing with the characters and not at them. Most critics have favored productions in which the actors portray the disabilities as realistically as possible.

Therefore, actors would do well to meet and work with adults with special needs. That way, the actors can do justice to the characters, impress critics, and move audiences.

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Bradford, Wade. "Characters and Themes of Griffin's "The Boys Next Door"." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Bradford, Wade. (2021, July 31). Characters and Themes of Griffin's "The Boys Next Door". Retrieved from Bradford, Wade. "Characters and Themes of Griffin's "The Boys Next Door"." ThoughtCo. (accessed October 22, 2021).