Tom Griffin's "The Boys Next Door" is a wonderful play, but it demands a strong and sensitive interpretation from its actors and directors.
Fortunately, it gets that in the current production at the Players Theatre.
The result is a very funny evening of theater that's full of warmth and heart.
The reason "The Boys Next Door" can be hard to pull off is that most of its characters have mental disabilities, and we're meant to laugh at them. One has some sort of mental illness that causes him to believe that he's a professional golfer -- despite his abject ignorance of the game -- and to charge people for lessons. Another has the intelligence of a 5-year-old, but imagines himself to be an intellectual and checks out weighty government agriculture reports from the library by the armload. Another is a "nervous person" who consistently misuses words. A fourth is obsessed with donuts and a woman who lives in the same group home.
So Griffin has us laugh at them, but it's OK because he has created such lovely characters that he also makes you like them and even care about them. Their disabilities become mere human foibles that are part them but don't define them.
The lead actors in the Players production turn in fine, heart-filled performances.
Standouts are Dylan Jones as Arnold, who's twitchy and annoyed, always on the brink becoming very angry, and Ren Pearson as Barry, the ersatz golf pro who always speaks with nonsensical authority. Stephen Pustai is also a lot of fun as romantic, donut-loving Norman, the most thoroughly likeable of the four.
Adam Garrison is good as Lucien P. Smith, the severely mentally challenged man.
Ross Boehringer plays Jack, who looks after people in the group home where the four men live. Jack's restrained frustration and unrestrained affection for the home's residents are both apparent in Boehringer's low-key performance.
The play doesn't work as well when it gets heavy in act two. A harsh scene between Barry and his abusive estranged father (Barry Look) simply seems out of place in such a warm-hearted comedy. And Barry's fate is dramatically unsatisfying.
There's also a surreal scene involving a peek into Lucien's psyche that falls flat here.
The only real problem with the production is an unattractive set, including a tinsel curtain. There are good reasons for the set to be kind of cheap-looking, but it's still unpleasant to look at for two hours.
The play unfolds in a series of vignettes, not an extended plot, so the few dramatic scenes that don't work are isolated and generally don't infect the rest of the show. You leave the theater remembering the laughs, and remembering the kind, charming and delightfully flawed characters you've just met.
Details: Through July 28, The Players Theatre, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $18. Information: 941-365-2494, www.theplayers.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.