When Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II took the enormous risk of exposing the ugly secret of domestic violence as a topic to be treated on the musical theater stage in the ground-breaking "Carousel," they opened Pandora's Box. Many playwrights have followed suit in dealing with this pervasive and perennial issue. In "Neighborhood Watch," one of his most recent plays, prolific British dramatist Sir Alan Ayckbourn tackles spousal abuse by including it as one of several savory ingredients in a rich stew that bubbles up a garden variety of societal ills: vigilantism, religious fundamentalism, homophobia, xenophobia, gossip mongering, general hypocrisy and marital unfaithfulness - to name just a few of the author's targeted low-hanging fruit.
Under the Direction of David Miller, Zeitgeist Stage Company has been producing Ayckbourn plays since 2010, allowing Boston audiences to become accustomed to this Brit's unique style and tone. "Neighborhood Watch" is a very black comedy that works well on many levels.
The play begins with a terrific monologue by Hilda Massey, played splendidly by Shelley Brown, whose British accent is impeccable. Kudos to Dialect Coach, Christopher Sherwood Davis. In this memorial oration, Hilda, the prim and proper conservative Christian fundamentalist, is eulogizing her late brother, Martin. She drones on and on, making the monologue feel interminable as she highlights her brother's humanitarianism. I suspect that the author had two things in mind as he penned this opening scene. He is setting the tone for the entire play, the action of which will be a flashback to the months before Martin's untimely demise.. He also throws a harsh light onto the interminable disingenuous drivel we must often endure at funerals and memorials.
As the flashback begins, we meet Martin, played very convincingly by Bob Musset. He and Hilda have just moved into a home previously occupied by a woman who died in her bed in the Bluebell Hill Development. They throw themselves a house-warming tea to meet the neighbors. During the tea, Martin apprehends a youth hopping the back yard fence, setting in motion a series of absurd, hilarious and ultimately deadly events that demonstrate clearly the Law of Unintended Consequences. The stage is set for this motley crew of neighbors to evolve into a heavy metal vigilante band of neo-Nazis that turn the formerly peaceful and bucolic neighborhood into an armed camp and gated community to protect themselves from dangers both real and imagined.
The menagerie of colorful neighbors includes:
Rod Trusser, a former security guard whose answer to every problem is kinetic and tending toward the use of blunt force. Victor Brandalise, sadly, is not up to the task of portraying this character in a believable fashion - the acting tending toward the use of blunt force. Accent, facial expressions, mastery of lines all need work.
Dorothy Doggett is the over-rouged, gossip-mongering former newspaper employee. Ann Marie Shea nails this character, mixing just the right ratio of cartoonishness with a hint of the real threat that this kind of person can represent in a group.
Gareth Janner is the oft-cuckolded husband of Amy. He is an engineer who has been found "Redundant" and put out to pasture to tinker in his shop concocting personal torture implements to enforce the rules that the Neighborhood Watch enacts to bring evildoers to heel. Robert Bonotto has several memorable moments, especially as he lights up with sadistic delight in reviewing the catalogue of Medieval torture tools he may build. His disquisition on the fine differences between stocks and pillories is a highlight moment of the play.
Amy is the one note of liberalism and license in a group of uptight conservative prigs. She sleeps openly with anyone who strikes her fancy, finally setting her sights on the formerly unassailable Martin. Ashley Risteen is splendidly seductive in this role. Her blood feud with the protective and jealous Hilda illuminates some of Hilda's underlying "issues."
Magda Bradley, played in a pitch perfect performance by Lynn R. Guerra, is the abused wife of Luther. In an effort to expose the suspected spousal abuse, Hilda interrogates Madga with Dorothy present as a potential witness. This grilling of Madga triggers a scene that is one of the few truly poignant moments in the play. Magda spews forth a tale of physical and emotional abuse by her father, who has handed the reins of discipline over to Luther. Her compulsion to play music becomes clear as she tells her story, as does her struggle with her undercurrent of "wickedness" that she hopes will be expunged by her father and Luther's beatings. The scene is a tour de force, and the true high spot of the play.
Luther, as the abusive husband, plays "the heavy." The role is ably filled by Damon Singletary. He plays the role without nuance, which is as much a function of the writing as it is of acting and directing choices.
The play is thought-provoking, often hilarious, and on occasion deeply troubling and moving. I commend this New England Premiere production to discerning theater goers who are prepared to chew on the issues that Mr. Ayckbourn serves up with his own unique special sauce.
The play will run through March 1 at the Boston Center for the Art's Plaza Black Box Theater.
"Things are not right on The Bluebell Hill Development. Theft, petty crime, vandalism – all the ills of modern suburban existence are on the increase. Newcomers Martin and his sister Hilda are the crime wave’s latest victims and resolve to take action. After all, the law of the land, all that’s right and proper, and even God himself, are surely on their side. But what starts out as a well-intentioned neighborhood watch scheme, soon develops into something altogether more sinister. Alan Ayckbourn’s hilarious cautionary tale of the dangers of taking the law into your own hands is his seventy-fifth play."
Zeitgeist Stage Website