A stellar event in regional theater took place Aug. 17 with the ribbon-cutting opening of the Paseo Nuevo shopping mall in downtown Santa Barbara.
The new Center Stage Theater, an intimate, 150-seat black box on the second level of Paseo Nuevo, had its own ribbons cut at 8 p.m. by Mayor Sheila Lodge. The glitzy opening night audience, which paid $100 per seat, was treated to the premiere performance of Anthony Edwards starring in "The Boys Next Door," an Access Theatre company production about the developmentally disabled.
There's an old superstition about the quality of the first performance in a new theater conferring a permanent blessing or curse. Those who believe in it can rest easy, because Edwards and a mostly Equity cast delivered a powerful, poignant performance that ended in a well-deserved standing ovation.
Is it possible to laugh at the developmentally disabled? Clive Barnes wrote of the 1987 off-Broadway production of Tom Griffin's "The Boys Next Door": "It's a funny play and it very adroitly provides its audience with the freedom to laugh."
There was plenty of laughter Friday night, some of it the kind that hurts.
Edwards plays Jack, a burned-out live-in social worker in an apartment complex for the developmentally disabled. Edwards' role is essentially a straight man, and he delivers a solid performance--a strong wire on which are erratically strung, like bizarre beads, the character roles of his four housemates.
Norman (Dirk Blocker) is retarded, fat, and addicted to doughnuts, keys and his retarded girlfriend, Sheila. Lucien (Haven Mitchell) is serverely retarded, black, and 6 feet, 8 inches tall. He's touchingly proud of his Spider-Man tie, and he sees no difference between a quarter and a button. Arnold (Richard Hochberg) is marginally retarded, scrappy, hyperactive/compulsive,has a rug fetish and is convinced life is better in the Soviet Union. Last is Barry (Marc Buckland) "a grade-A schizophrenic with a history of institutions," who is chillingly intense. He is obsessed with the game of golf, and he gives lessons for $1.14 an hour.
In a series of vignettes that describe the day-to-day life of these five men, other characters appear briefly, most of them portrayed by physically or developmentally disabled actors.
In the same way that "Rainman" and "My Left Foot" provided rich opportunities for actors to delve deep into complex characterizations, so too do these roles, and Blocker, Buckland, Hochberg and Mitchell, all seasoned Equity actors, make the most of it. Under the direction of Rod Lathim, these sometimes brave, sometimes desperate people living on the fringes of society have some heroic moments.
Mitchell's Lucien (who could step right into "Of Mice and Men" as Lenny) has a set piece that will linger in the memory. At his Social Security hearing to have his survival funds restored, he suddenly breaks character, the house goes dark except for a spot, and he gives a "fantasy" monologue:
"My capacity for rationalization is somewhere between a 5-year-old and an oyster. I am retarded. I am damaged, I am sick inside from so many days, weeks, months and years of confusion. I am mystified by faucets, elevators, newspapers and popular songs. I can't always remember the names of my parents . . . but I will not wither because the cage is too small. . . ."
As the lights go up and Mitchell crouches back down into his monosyllabic character, the words hang long in the air.
In a sequence in which his father returns from out of nowhere and strikes him with a crutch, Buckland dominates a whole scene without speaking or moving. From his frozen position on a couch he simply exudes more and more intensity until the scene explodes emotionally.
Hochberg's portrayal is packed with nuance. With the twist of his mouth and a few fingers he conveys the tragedy of his situation. Blocker's scenes with his girlfriend (Susan Kern) are poignant and believable.
The beauty of the piece is that one comes away feeling that good actors have given their all.
Thus the inherent weakness in the fabric of the script--that it is only episodic and lacks a strong narrative line--is in part overcome by the tension created by high-energy actors on stage.
Technical standards are high. The Complex lighting design and appropriately tacky set are credited to Theodore Michael Dolas of Santa Barbara Scenic.
* WHERE AND WHEN: Santa Barbara's Access Theatre presents "The Boys Next Door" at the Center Stage Theater at 7O1 State St. in Santa Barbara. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday. The show runs through Sept. 9. For tickets and information, call 963-0408.