Mixed Results

Two new productions showcase solid craft, but it's the play that's the thing.

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click to enlarge THE BOYS: From left: Michael C. McGreevy (Norman), - "ranney" (Lucien), Brian Shea (Barry) and Paul J. Potenza - (Arnold). - DAVID JENKINS
DAVID JENKINS
THE BOYS: From left: Michael C. McGreevy (Norman), "ranney" (Lucien), Brian Shea (Barry) and Paul J. Potenza (Arnold).

Considering the level of talent onstage at the Shimberg Playhouse for The Boys Next Door, you have every reason to expect an overwhelming experience. Two of the actors - Brian Shea and "ranney" - are past winners of the Weekly Planet's "Best of the Bay" award, as is the director, Ned Averill-Snell. The other performers include the prodigiously skillful Paul J. Potenza, the consistently impressive Chris Holcom, and the very capable Michael C. McGreevy, Ami Sallee Corley, Leah LoSchiavo, Alvin Jenkins and Slake Counts.

Attending this show is like participating in a live "Who's Who" of Bay area theater, and in almost every case, the actors portray the mentally challenged characters with poignancy and passion.

No actor could better Potenza's angry, nervous Arnold, and when Shea's Barry reacts to a frightening encounter with his abominable father by falling into a catatonic silence, you fully understand - and even sympathize with - his impulse to withdraw from life.

Add "ranney"'s ingratiating impersonation of childish Lucien and McGreevy's impeccable work as pastry-loving Norman, and you already have some of the best performances of the current theater season.

So why isn't Boys a more satisfying experience? I think the problem is in the structure - or lack of structure - on which playwright Tom Griffin has built his investigation of the life of the mentally handicapped. As social worker Jack puts it late in the play, "The problem is that they never change. I change, my life changes, my crises change. But they stay the same."

Having this perspective about Arnold, Lucien, Norman, Barry and their friends, Griffin makes his play episodic, without plot in an evolutionary sense. So the spectator who at first pays close attention to the Boys eventually learns that there's no penalty for drifting off or missing a line: These characters don't develop, don't layer on the meanings.

Early in the play, Norman lets us know that his keys are exceedingly precious to him; late in the play he's telling us the same thing. The same goes for Barry's golf lessons, Norman's love of donuts, Arnold's annoyance. Once they're introduced, they pretty much hang in the air unmodified. The irony is, these hugely talented actors are among the best in the area at showing us all the unsuspected depths of the unpredictable human animal. And in Boys, that's precisely what they've been asked not to show. It's a pity: so much talent being used for such limited purposes.

The story (if you can call it that) that Boys tells is about a communal home in New England for the mentally challenged, and about Jack, the social worker who gamely looks after them. In the play's two acts, there are events if not developments: We see Arnold being tricked into buying too many boxes of Wheaties, and being forced to shine the shoes of a threatening co-worker; Lucien proudly bringing home library books he can't read, and testifying unhelpfully before a government committee; Norman striving not to eat his pastry shop's donuts, and Barry, who delusionally considers himself a golf pro, trying to sell lessons for the attractive rate of two-for-a-quarter.

There are dances where the men interact with mentally challenged women, and there is one confrontation - between Barry and his one-armed father - that's so direct and explicit that it seems to belong in another play.

And finally, there are moments when social worker Jack addresses the audience, and tells us what he thinks about his job as the men's supervisor. Unfortunately, author Griffin doesn't use these opportunities to achieve real depth; Jack's monologues are mostly restrained, unsurprising, even superficial. At the end of the play you don't know him very well, either.

Other aspects of the production: Katrina Stevenson's costuming is quietly convincing, but Dickie Corley's set is blandly unattractive. Averill-Snell directs with an eye for naturalistic credibility: You never doubt that these characters live in a complicated world full of baffling obstacles. But in this production, first impressions go a long way; too far, in fact, to keep us interested for two full acts. This is a problem that Averill-Snell, for all his skill, hasn't solved.

At its best, The Boys Next Door teaches us to respect the mentally challenged. At worst, it presents them as reductively predictable.

And not even Tampa Bay's best actors can make that contradiction dramatic.

Sleepover. I first saw a production of Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune about 10 years ago - and a decade hasn't changed my feeling about the play. This is a maddening drama, devoid of suspense and at times crushingly boring; but it's also a play with occasional moments of great beauty and of deep insight into its characters.

It's the story of romantic short-order cook Johnny and his first night of love with self-doubting, irritable Frankie. After sex, Johnny declares his undying affection for his dubious bedmate. But Frankie would be more comfortable if her talkative lover would just go home - she's had enough experience to know that the worst relationships can begin with an effusion of goodwill.

Since Johnny's departure would immediately end this two-character effort, it's not likely that he'll comply - and we spend a good deal of the evening wishing that she'd stop demanding that he exit, and he stop insisting that he'll stay. But just when the redundancy is about to drive us bonkers, Johnny calls an all-night radio DJ and asks him to play the most beautiful music ever written.

He plays Debussy's Claire de Lune; and the effect is simply magical. Suddenly Frankie and Johnny is about a sadly fallen Adam and Eve reaching anxiously for a few stolen moments back in paradise. And it's about all of us damaged, wised-up sophisticates, nervously tending what's left of our innocence.

The current showing by Hat Trick Productions could be better in lots of ways, but at least it offers the fine work of Mackenzie White as a Frankie whose many disappointments won't allow her to accept a compliment. Kevin Whalin as Johnny does some creditable work, but he's too young for the part, and doesn't display much complexity.

Joe Winskye's direction makes the most of the tiny Silver Meteor stage, but Anne Johannesen's disorderly set lacks the careful realism that might remind us of how far we've wandered since Eden. Finally, Jack Holloway is a terrific radio announcer.

If you're a fan of McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! or Master Class, beware: Frankie and Johnny doesn't have a fraction of those plays' virtues. But if you're willing to sit through some really tedious moments for a glimpse of dramatic loveliness, this duet is for you. It's prosaic, repetitive, static - and then splendid. Just when you're wishing you'd stayed home to watch TV, it shows you something exquisite.

For me, it's not enough.

But I'd understand if you said you were a fan of Frankie and Johnny.

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