Is there anything more dangerous – or funnier – than self-righteous extremists? Yes, those who live in a gated community, as Alan Ayckbourn deftly demonstrates in his dark comedy, Neighborhood Watch, the 75th play by this 72-year-old youngster, and his fourth to make its New York debut at Brits Off Broadway.
The production arrives directly from The Stephen Joseph Theatre in Yorkshire, where almost all of Ayckbourn’s plays are launched before moving to the West End, Broadway, Off-Broadway and around the world. Among his best known comedies are Relatively Speaking, Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests, which earned a Tony for Best Revival of a Play when it transferred to Broadway from the Old Vic.
The opening monologue in Neighborhood Watch, delivered by Hilda Massie, 50, the older sister of Martin Massie, makes it clear that “dear Martin… a man driven by faith and powered by love” is no longer with us. In fact, she is officially opening the Martin Massie Memorial Park. The rest of the play then moves back four months to unveil the series of events that ended poor Martin’s life.
Hilda and Martin are devout Christians who’ve looked after each other since childhood. They’ve just moved into a suburban development, Bluebell Hill, located a quarter of a mile from a low-income housing project. Sanctimonious and repressed Hilda, perfectly embodied by Alexandra Mathie, and virginal, self-satisfied Martin, played by Matthew Cottle with a wonderfully scrunched up expression, seem a matched pair. As does their living room, where all the action unfolds, with its two, large curved sofas surrounding an artificial gas fireplace that Hilda proudly turns on and off as though it’s the latest Viking stove.
Brother and sister, brimming with pleasure and satisfaction at their large backyard and wonderful unfenced view, are hosting a housewarming party for their new neighbors. In walk a series of characters – and types – Rod Trusser, in his sixties, who used to be in security, Dorothy Doggett, a widow and busybody, and Gareth, whose hedge trimmer was recently stolen, who is the older husband of sexy Amy. Rounding out the group are next-door neighbor Magda, a young music teacher and woodwind player, and her conniving husband, Luther.
It’s always a pleasure to see a first-rate acting ensemble, which is what we get from this cast — and production — from Ayckbourn’s artistic U.K. home. There isn’t a weak link in the bunch. Frances Grey is delicious as Amy, and Terence Booth, is a hilarious and believable Rod, who drops to the floor, combat-style, whenever he senses backyard danger.
As we soon discover, all is not well on Bluebell Hill. Theft, petty crime and vandalism are sweeping through this idyllic enclave. Hilda and Martin, in fact, believe themselves to be the latest victims, although in the land of British farce, they are, predictably, mistaken. Egged on by their neighbors, some of whom are paranoid, anti-immigrant racists, Hilda and Martin take action. They decide to not only build a fence, but also to create a “neighborhood watch,” to police their suburban community. Suffice it to say that Hilda, Martin and their neighbors become increasingly fanatic about enforcing civility and security.
Ayckbourn skillfully moves his characters around like chess pieces in a comic but ultimately dark farce. Especially enjoyable and well plotted is the gradual seduction of Martin by red-haired Amy. The minute she enters the scene the entire play moves into high gear and the kind of farce for which Ayckbourn is well known.
In Ayckbourn’s uniquely satiric style, Neighborhood Watch both indicts and pokes fun at extremists of all stripes – from religious to political — who become more dangerous than the so-called dangerous people they are trying to keep out. Mistaking Jesus for a lethal weapon is but one of the ironic twists he employs to bring his point home. In this era of rising religious fanaticism, it is a point well worth making.
If you love British satire played by an impeccable cast, this is a play you won’t want to miss.
Photos by Karl Andre Photography, from top:
1. Alexandra Mathie as Hilda and Frances Grey as Amy
2. Terence Booth as Rod
3. Mathew Cottle as Martin
4. Mathew and Frances Grey (Martin and Amy)
Written and Directed by Alan Ayckbourn
59 East 59th Street Theaters
Through January 1, 2012