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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Wonderful is an apt adjective for practically any play by the prolific Ayckbourn, especially if he's also directing it. This is his 75th play and the 59E59 Theaters are fortunate — as are New York theater goers— to once again be able to present one of Ayckbourn's most recent works as part of the annual Brits Off_Broadway festival (Previous Ayckbourn premiere highlighting the festival: Intimate Exchanges in 2007 and My Wonderful Day in 2009)
). Sir Alan has an extraordinary knack for piling plot complication upon complication and in the process moving into the darker corners of his usually ordinary and drolly comic characters' lives.
Neighborhood Watch is probably Ayckbourn's darkest play. What initially seems like a setup for one of those frequently rebroadcast British family sitcoms, quickly turns into a vinegar sharp social satire reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984.
Though the very proper, forty-ish siblings, Martin and his sister Hilda (Matthew Cottle and Alexandra Mathie both of whom, like the other six actors are extremely skillful at being "ordinary"), are newcomers to the neighborhood, Martin quickly becomes the leader of the civic minded Blue Hill residents eager to do something about a rising tide of petty crimes and vandalism. And why not? Things seem to go from bad to worse the minute Martin and Hilda are settled in enough to have the neighbors in for a housewarming and Martin, according to his devoted older sister, is not only a good Christian man but a natural leader.
Rod (Terence Booth, who like Alexandra Mathie, will be famliar to all lucky to have seen My Wonderful Day), a war veteran who's retired (prematurely, like many in the development) from a job in the security service, blames the nearby high rise housing project for the theft and vandalism and the police department's unwillingness to do anything about it. However, as it turns out the problems besetting Bluebell Hill come largely from within its environs. inside
The playwright is as usual fiendishly inventive in finding ways to connect various troublesome incidents, into an expanding picture of the citizens of Bluebell Hill acting counter to the very upstanding life their neighborhood watch committee is supposed to protect. It starts with Martin's apprehending someone he sees jumping the fence between his and the neighbor's property and carrying a suspicious looking case.
The understandable urge to protect oneself, especially in an area bordered by one that's heavily populated by a criminal element (to wit, the nearby housing project), good intentions often have unintended consequences far more sinister and dangerous than vandalism and thefts The Bluebell Hill committee all too clearly illustrates how something like this can get out of hand. For example, committee member Gareth's (Richard Derrington) model of an old-fashioned punishment device as a cautionary display piece symbolizes the committee's all too easy transformation into microcosm of a police state — shades of Orwell but more sinister because it's in the present. The one for whom the milktoasty Gareth's interest in the methodology of punishment is a special threat is his flamboyant wife Amy (Frances Grey) who happens to be the least self-deluded and straightforward Bluebell Hill resident.
The transition from the banal chatter by Hilda and Martin with their guests, all of whom are ordinary enough to have stepped out of one of those much rebroadcast British class family sitcoms, is achieved by vividly acquainting us with the mundane characters so that everything can explode without loss of believability. Martin is clearly a mild-mannered, fair-minded man. He runs the committee meetings according to Roberts Rules but Ayckbourn makes us see how even well-meaning people like him can be roused to fury and be seduced by the thrill of being somebody important.
Given the sweep of the the this satire, you won't be surprised to also see adultery and Lesbianism become part the the ever escalating bedlam. Not to be a spoiler and because what happens has to be seen. Speaking of surprises, I'm spoiling nothing when I tell you that Martin's leadership lands him in a coffin since the play beings with a prologue that has Hilda dedicate a park in her dead brother's memory. What keeps you absorbed is not so much what happens as how it all unfolds. Anyway, there is a little surprise bomb in that end-predicting prologue.
The shift from the usual neighborhood meetings to address shared concerns about security into a more wide-ranging and scary vigilante situation remains grounded in the siblings' living room and we actually see only eight of their neighbors. However, the script includes enough unseen characters to be brought to life by the the onstage cast's talk about them. As this creates a sense of watching a whole neighborhood of darkly vivid characters, so Ayckbourn in his role as director, sturdily supported by designers (Pip Leckenby and Mick Hughes), provides us with just enough actual details about Hilda and Martin's purposefully tastelessly decorated home, leaving it to the viewer's imagination (typical of Ayckbourn's plays), to expand on the rest of the house and the scene outside it. Except for the sexy Amy, the costumes match the unstylish decor.
My complaints about Neighborhood Watch are as minimal as the scenery. It's about 20 minutes too long, the culprit being a few too many committee meetings. Also, since the script manages to fill us in on most of the characters' work histories, it seems odd that we don't have a clue about what Hilda and Martin, the two people who undergo the most drastic changes over the course of the two acts, do or have done to earn the money to move into the Bluebell Hill development.
Seen within the play's overall pleasures, the above are not major enough complaints to keep me from recommending it. An interchange between Martin and Amy about the use of "bad language" alone should make it a must for budding playwrights who take their cues from the likes of David Mamet. Though Martin admits to occasionally succumbing to cuss words when under stress he says he tries not to swear too often because "I think on the whole, it's usually a symptom of a somewhat inadequate vocabulary." Martin and Amy then exchange favorite beautiful words. A lovely little interlude by a playwright who practices what his character preaches.
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