Top Hat’s ‘Boys Next Door’ rises above material


What: “The Boys Next Door” by Top Hat Productions

Where: Fairview Arts and Outreach Center, 4220 Youngstown-Poland Road, Youngstown

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and March 19

Tickets: 330-755-6412

By Milan Paurich

For a theater company that made its name and reputation on powerhouse musicals such as “The Earth Trembled,” “Ragtime” and “Aida” (among others), it’s a tad deflating that the only original productions of Top Hat’s 2010-11 season have been November’s corny cathechism comedy “Nunsense” and its current attraction, “The Boys Next Door.” A popular 1980s dramedy, Tom Griffin’s play always has reminded me of a “very special episode” of “The Facts of Life.”

The template for the show certainly looks sitcom-ready. A group of mentally challenged adults living in a group home are supervised by a burned-out, but nice- guy, caseworker. Sit back and watch the behavioral tics fly. Undemanding TV — or community-theater audiences — will be chuckling and choking back the tears in record time.

And yet Top Hat’s rendering of “Boys” is so much better than the material deserves that I’m almost willing to suspend my cynicism. Directed by relative neophyte Anna Marshall, the show has been blessed with a generally strong cast that helps make Griffin’s clich s and boilerplate sentimentality go down a lot easier than one might suspect. Despite some built-in structural problems — there are far too many “breaking the fourth wall” moments in which characters (particularly long-suffering counselor Jack) recount what happened between scenes — Marshall moves things along in an expeditious fashion, and her actors rarely let her down.

Each of the four residents is given a defining personality trait (or two). Arnold (a terrific Phil Cowen) is obsessed with rugs and the idea of moving to Russia; Lucien (Greg Endsley) has a thing for Spider-Man and buttons; Norman (Joe Marshall) can’t stop talking about — or eating — doughnuts; and schizophrenic Barry (an invaluable Shawn Lockaton) fashions himself something of a golf pro. Think of it as the Chinese-menu approach to playwriting: one cutesy idiosyncrasy from column A; two cloying eccentricities from column B.

During the course of the narrative’s (roughly) two-month time frame, Norman falls in love with the equally challenged Sheila (Liz Conrad, superb); Jack (Matthew DiBattiste) considers a much-needed career change; and Barry receives a visit from his abusive absentee father (a nice effort by novice actor Carlos Rivera) that has disturbing consequences.

Tim Chesney and Haggy Hageman both acquit themselves nicely in a variety of smaller roles. Also impressive are Brian Palumbo and Terry Price’s spot-on scenic design and typically stellar Top Hat lighting by Jeffrey Chann and Angel Febres. Less effective is the 10-sizes-too-large coat Rivera is forced to wear in his one scene. It makes him look like a prisoner of David Byrne’s “big suit” from “Stop Making Sense.”

For no discernible reason except for the fact that the play was written (and originally produced) in the ’80s, there’s a surfeit of Reagan-era songs interspersed throughout the show (Whitney Houston, Journey, etc.). Since there’s nothing period-specific in the actual script, those moldy-oldy musical choices are mildly baffling. But, like this well-tooled production as a whole, they’re not actively unpleasant, either.

“The Boys Next Door” runs through March 20 at the Fairview Arts and Outreach Center. For reservations, call 330-755-6573.

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