Thoughts & Musings

My Brother’s Keeper:
Tom Griffin’s The Boys Next Door (1988)

© 2017 by Eileen Warburton

For the others, like me, there is only the flash
Of negative knowledge, the night when, drunk, one
Staggers to the bathroom and stares in the glass
To meet one’s madness
“The Age of Anxiety” W.H. Auden (1947)

Four grown men live together in a shared apartment in an apartment complex in an urban community, right here in Rhode Island. There are other people everywhere about. Yet each man is isolated, terrifyingly alone. Each of these men is reduced to childhood and permanent dependency. He is forever a “boy.”

Each of these men in the group home has a different psychological disability, his own personal mental illness. Yet even if it were the same diagnosis, each would be suffering from an absolutely separate, personal perception of the world. Anxiety is always subjective.

Arnold, “mildly depressive,” is compulsive and prey to paranoid fantasies. His racing mind spins out of control and he fantasizes about escaping to Russia. Lucien has the developmental age of a five-year old and experiences the world with a five-year old’s confusion and frustration, as well as a five-year old’s delight. Sweet, insecure Norman comforts himself with donuts and can’t relinquish his keys, even as he awkwardly plays out his crush on Sheila. Schizophrenic Barry jauntily reinvents himself as a golf pro, although he has no equipment and doesn’t know how to play. But he desperately believes his father will now be proud of him and won’t abuse and neglect him. Each of these basically kind souls is trapped in a completely personal universe of anxiety.

The clash with what the rest of us take for “reality” generates many genuinely comic situations as well as some that are bitterly sad. For the point of living in a halfway house is that each of these men must constantly interact with the world outside their own private mental projection. They need to hold jobs, shop for groceries, do chores, talk to the neighbors. Outside, they have to deal with, evaluate, trust (but not too much) other people who more or less comfortably navigate a shared perception of reality that the “boys” can’t quite comprehend. The boys are often victimized (as Arnold is by the grocery store manager, then by his bullying co-worker, Melvin), or treated with inappropriate sympathy (as is Norman by his co-workers in the donut shop). Such interactions are exhausting and confusing. They leave the boys fearing judgments, agonizing over how to act, distracted from any inner serenity or sense of dignity.

The sad thing is that the boys can’t change. Each is trapped in his personal illness. He is able to amend behavior somewhat. Arnold has to return those extra boxes of cereal. Lucien manages to meet with the Health and Human Services Subcommittee of the State Senate. Norman has to try to resist those donuts. Yet real growth is denied them. The only character capable of change is Jack, the social worker who leads the group home. But Jack is getting to be very burnt out. It’s his job to herd these cats, trying to impose a gentle discipline and calm on the regular chaos. The boys are so needy, however, that Jack has nothing left for his own needs. He watches his ex-wife moving on, happy in his absence and her financial security. When he eventually looks for a new job, it’s a symbolic escape, working in a travel agency.

For all these characters living in anxiety and mental isolation, what can offer a little succor and stability is the family situation that, willy-nilly, they create within the group home. Jack looks out for them. They look out for each other. They share the work and they care. There is a kind of rough brotherhood among them that gives them acceptance and dignity when the outside world is too unkind.

Ultimately, of course, the little world of the group home is an extreme magnification of what all of us experience. We, too, are anxious to different degrees, trying to make sense of a very confusing world, trying to interact positively with others, trying to keep some sort of personal dignity in the process. As W.H. Auden puts it in his Pulitzer-winning poem, “The Age of Anxiety,” this play make us “see where we are./ Lost in a haunted wood,/Children afraid of the night/Who have never been happy or good.” What can partly save us—as it does the boys—is a little brotherhood, a bit of community, kindness, inclusion, and some purpose to our days.

Playwright Tom Griffin, who still lives just up the road, is one of Rhode Island’s success stories. He was born in Providence in 1946 and grew up in a neighborhood, as he put it in a 2005 interview, “with a lot of [developmentally disabled] people.” His father insisted that “you could feel sorry for them, you could make fun of them, but you couldn’t exclude them . . . you couldn’t say ‘you can’t play.’ That’s really the worst thing, being told you can’t play.” This direct experience, along with the stories of a friend who was a group home administrator, formed the genesis of The Boys Next Door.

For nine years (1974-1983), Tom Griffin was a member of the acting company at Trinity Rep. He started writing producible plays before joining the company and continued throughout his acting career. Eventually, writing overtook acting and he has been a full-time writer since 1986. Besides The Boys Next Door, which has received hundreds upon hundreds of productions around the world, Griffin’s best-known plays include The Taking Away of Little Willie (1978), Einstein and the Polar Bear (1980), Pasta (1982), Amateurs (1984), and Mrs. Sedgewick’s Head (2005).

The opinions expressed in this essay
are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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