By: Avi Mendelson  | 

In Praise of Folly and YCDS

Yeshiva College Dramatics Society’s selected play for second semester may have raised some eyebrows.  No, The Boys Next Door is not an adaptation of The Girls Next Door for an all-male school production—you can lower your eyebrows a bit.  But it is a comedy about four grown men with mental disabilities living together in a group home.

You read that correctly—a comedy about special needs. When I first saw the promotional poster for this play, complete with (intentionally) misspelled days of the week on which the play would be performed, I felt a combination of skepticism and worry. How exactly was this supposed to work?  Was the comedy simply meant to be sourced in the convoluted and endearing interactions between grown men with mental disabilities?  Was the audience to laugh at their ridiculous statements and ambitious fantasies?  How was this humor not going to be cheap, distasteful, or offensive?  And even if this humor was actually rather sophisticated, nuanced, and insightful, could a bunch of amateur college students—some first time performers—really convey the depth and wisdom of such a comedy? (I’ll answer this last one right now—YES!).

Before the play began, President of YCDS and producer Michael Fridman stepped out into the spotlight along with actor Binyamin Bixon (who played the role of Barry Klemper) to formally address these questions to an audience that was surely just as skeptical as I was. Said Bixon: “This play is not a mockery of our friends” (that doesn’t even sound like the sort of thing you should need to say).  “It is first and foremost a way for us to sympathize with their struggles. Please enjoy the play as it was intended… a comedy! Don’t hold back your laughter and applause!”

I wasn’t entirely convinced, partially because I still had no idea how this mixture of comedy and special needs was to be concocted.  But at least it was reassuring to know that someone was sensitive to the riskiness of this production.

The truth is that once I was actually seated and watching, I wasn’t questioning the potential offensiveness of the premise of the play—I was really just annoyed.  The opening scenes occur exclusively in the home and portray the idiosyncrasies and shenanigans of these men which often border on chaos.  I hardly found this enjoyable.  The humor was shallow and stupid.  Real life interactions like these are endearing and sweet, but what I seemed to be watching was a bunch of college students (some, friends) acting the part to get easy laughs. I simply did not understand what direction the play could go in and I was not looking forward to sitting through incomprehensibly meaningless interactions for another two hours.

In retrospect it was probably naïve of me to assume that the chaotic and vapid humor of the opening scene was all the play had in store.  For as soon as we left the home and followed the individual characters through their own daily routines, real lives with real struggles and complexity emerged.

Examples of these real life story lines would be the abuse that Arnold Wiggins (Eliyahu Raskin) experiences as a janitor in a movie theatre where his coworkers bully him.  Or the personality of Norman Bulansky (Judah Gavant) whose love of donuts may only be matched by his love for his brother who does not feel the same way.  Norman works really hard at winning his brother back (which is actually a YCDS adaptation of the storyline in the original play in which Norman is trying to win over his crush).

For someone whose only real interaction with people with disabilities is the occasional Yachad shabbaton, The Boys Next Door is a critically important play in that it portrays the linear sequence of the life, emotions, and thoughts of grown men with disabilities, as opposed to a cross section of existence in the timeline of life.  The play provides a complete picture of the individuals: their emotional development, the consequences of an event on their disposition, and the changes in personality that their environment effects.

Much of the insight of the play is subtle, and can be lost on a crowd that does not consider the inherent message it teaches.  I felt two scenes in particular were very powerful in their subtlety and their use of humor, both of which involved Arnold at a social dancing event that the home goes to every month.

One scene at first looks to be just another comical happening, but really reveals a thought-provoking truth.  Norman runs on to the scene to tell caretaker Jack (Jack Turell) that Arnold is in the bathroom and won’t leave until the drops of pee that he got on his pants dry, for fear of embarrassment.  But sure enough, Arnold emerges from the bathroom with his entire pants soaking wet.  When Jack half amusedly inquires as to what happened, Arnold responds that a pipe burst, causing water to spray everywhere.  As Jack quickly turns to fix up the situation in the bathroom, concerned about the damage that he is now responsible for, Arnold stops him. “Don’t you get it?” asks Arnold.  He then explains to Jack that he was so embarrassed about the pee on his pants that he soaked the rest of his pants with water to disguise the mess and then told everyone that a pipe exploded.  “I’ve had great results,” says Arnold proudly.  As Jack chuckles and the scene ends, the rest of the audience is left laughing.  But in the lull between scenes, we realize that the laughter is less about Arnold’s elaborate plan, and more about the fact that he successfully tricked us, too.  Cliché as it sounds, the audience is not laughing at Arnold, but rather with Arnold as we share his delight in the brilliance and effectiveness of his solution. Or perhaps the laughter is directed at ourselves for having doubted Arnold, and herein lies the point of this short but sweet scene.  We often wave off the perceived irrational actions of people with special needs, or smile about them endearingly.  But maybe there is a lot more coherence from the perspective of those we assume to be acting irrationally.   As with Arnold and his burst pipe, perhaps we are the ones that are missing out on something.

At the same party, Arnold is contemplating out loud with Norman whether or not he should cut in to dance with a girl he likes.  While he and Norman scoff privately at the girl and make fun of her “tick” (one of her dance moves), it is obvious that Arnold really does want to cut in, but that he lacks either the social skills or confidence to do so.  Eventually he does, only to be rejected by the girl.  When he returns, he tries to laugh it off with Norman and continues to make fun of her tick.  The audience laughs along, as Arnold’s imitation is rather humorous.  “That’s maybe better,” Norman says to him reassuringly.  “Sure, it’s better,” responds Arnold confidently.  They go back and forth repeating these two lines, but gradually Arnold’s voice raises until he finally shouts “Sure, it’s better!” and the scene ends.  Here, the subtlety of Arnold’s tone, which can only be recognized once his shout is left lingering in the ears of the audience as the scene cuts to black, drives home the message of this scene.  Arnold’s tone is no longer complacent—in fact, it never was.  His voice reveals that he is angry and deeply upset.  The visceral emotions that he holds inside which are suppressed by an inability to properly deal with or express them eventually do come out.  Because he cannot deal with those emotions in a proactive, constructive manner through, say, a conversation with a friend, Arnold is left to feel bitter and frustrated at his failure and slim prospects for feeling happy.  People—particularly those with special needs—sometimes seem emotionally simple and complacent, but have real, complicated emotions just like the rest of us.  And if they can’t express regular emotions with ease, imagine how painful it must be to have those difficult emotions lodged inside with no way out.  The troubling reality that the audience was laughing with Arnold and Norman about the girl’s tick just moments before, but now realizes that Arnold is actually deeply hurt, shows us how vital the ability to express emotion is in order to receive support—and how lonely it can feel for someone who cannot communicate that effectively.

I was really, truly impressed by Raskin’s performance in this particular instance because all of this was conveyed in his tone of voice.  The Boys Next Door is not a play whose message is verbalized by the characters; rather, it is understood through the expression of their emotions.   In this way, the role of the actors is that much more crucial, as they are tasked with expressing the thoughts and feelings of their character through tone, facial expression, hand gestures, body language, and movement.  The actors all did a phenomenal job with this.

However, I do have one critique reserved for YCDS’s production, and it rides on this last thought.  The main point of this play is to show that people with mental disabilities experience life in much the same way as those who do not.  Their emotions are as complex, their struggles as real, their joys as life-fulfilling.  One of the story lines that would have encompassed all these truths would have been Norman trying to win back his girlfriend.  For those who did not watch the play with the foreknowledge that this was the original plot line, the adaptation of Norman winning his brother back would have gone unnoticed.  But as someone who was cognizant of this substitution, I really felt something valuable was missing.  The look of sheer happiness and bliss on Norman’s face as he gleefully jumps for joy after his meeting with his brother really captured an emotion, but an emotion reserved for a relationship that was just not as relatable.  I think more people would have connected to Norman and the bliss he felt after his date, the only noticeable difference being that his emotions are more uninhibited and pure.  While I understand the religious observance issues with maintaining the original plotline of a guy in love with a girl, I do feel it was a shame this storyline had to be adapted, because it took away from the power of this scene.

By the second act, you could tell that the actors had really gained the trust of the audience.  Our cool timidity that made for some awkward silent moments in the first half when we should have been laughing reflected an unease with the comedy component of the play, but now we were laughing at every one of Norman’s adorable one liners.  It eventually dawned on me that the presence of comedy in this play was very well intended and expertly used. The entertainment that these men provided us through their ridiculous comments and convoluted conceptions of reality was not merely for entertainment’s sake—that would have been distasteful and boring—it was also morally edifying.  Fridman (or rather the playwright, Tom Griffin) wanted the audience to laugh because it is an integral part of experiencing the message of the play, since at a certain point we realize that we are really laughing at ourselves. After all, who is the audience laughing at when Norman describes a pornographic magazine that he found in a bathroom as he holds his arms wide in front of his chest to tell his friends about one model’s “big.. giant... shoes”? Certainly not Norman; he didn’t really say anything funny.  What is funny (or rather sad) to us is the immediate association the audience has with Norman’s hand motions and the magazine, to the point where we fill in the blank before Norman slowly reaches the end of his sentence.  The laughter is a form of endearing appreciation for Norman’s innocence as well as a commentary on our own free-associating minds. To take another example, when Norman is dancing with his brother Sheldon (Binyamin Goldman) at the dancing event, they get into an argument and stop dancing with each other.  However, moments later a new song comes on that they both like and they are happily dancing once again, as if nothing had come between them but a minute ago.  The audience’s laughter at this quick turnaround is, again, endearing, but it is also partly wishful that our lives should be so simple, our arguments that easy to forget.  Perhaps we laugh because it’s just plain silly that our lives aren’t that way.  Humor turns out to be the strongest force of edification because it teases out the common experiences that those in the mainstream all share which clearly don’t have to be the way they are.  The more we laugh, the more we collectively agree.  Maybe that’s why the audience only began laughing freely after the second half.  There’s nothing funny about plain ridiculousness for ridiculousness’ sake, but once the comedy is understood to be commentary, it becomes meaningful and insightful and we are glad to reciprocate with the coveted reaction of laughter.

It is really in this way that the play is “first and foremost a way for us to sympathize with their struggles.” When we look at their lives, we laugh at our own.  This play helps us realize that we all have struggles; some are universal, and some are individualized.  Laughter melts away the externalities that categorize us as different.

The Boys Next Door is truly a special play.  It is a daunting one to perform because of the level of difficulty in conveying all it has to offer, so you really have to hand it to the actors of YCDS.  The depth of their performance was felt both by audience members who could not relate to the struggles they were portraying and by those who could, a number of whom expressed this to the actors after the show.  The actors were able to have this effect in part because of an awareness of the importance of this play that lent itself to the investment of time, energy, and emotion necessary to fully connect to their respective characters.  This awareness was cultivated through the relationships YCDS formed with two organizations serving people with developmental disabilities.  YCDS raised funds for Libenu, an organization for Jewish men much like the ones in the play.  The cast also went to meet with members of AHRC as they were still learning about their roles, and this allowed them to internalize the struggles and feelings of their characters in a way that really spoke to the audience (which included the members of AHRC on opening night).  After two incredibly successful plays this year, by now it should be expected that YCDS will exceed expectations… and then some.  I want to applaud YCDS for not only delivering a great performance, but for putting on a performance that truly mattered.