note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
Lately, the benevolent phrase, neighborhood watch, has taken on a frightening connotation. Think George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, the self-appointed, gun-toting, Floridian neighborhood protector and the African-American teen-ager he shot to death. Zimmerman claimed he felt threatened by the boy, who was a stranger in his neighborhood, adding the boy attacked him, so he shot and killed him, in self-defense. Stories like Zimmerman’s keep cropping up lately, as neighborhood vigilantes carrying guns, baseball bats, knives, and other weaponry have gone on the offensive, with or without a legitimate reason. It kinda makes you wonder who the real criminal is.
Prolific, multi-award winning British playwright, Sir Alan Ayckbourn, wrote his 75th play, a stinging satire, about a British neighborhood watch gone wild before Zimmerman’s and other cases made global headlines. Ayckbourn’s play may seem hyperbolic at times, but its timeliness and caustic, ironic observation about human nature, especially when power is placed in the wrong hands, is sublime.
“Neighbourhood Watch” opens with a gracious woman named Hilda Massey dedicating a memorial neighborhood park to her brother, Martin, the development’s safety watch leader. Then, it flashes back to the story’s shocking events.
The play takes place in the fictitious British middle-class Bluebell Hill Development Project,located up the hill from the low-income, crime-troubled Mortuary Estate. A handful of Bluebell’s residents are convinced youthful, errant Estate residents are responsible for a rash of petty thefts and break-ins in their neighborhood, so newcomers Martin (Bob Mussett) and Hilda (Shelley Brown) have organized a crime watch to protect their and their neighbors‘ property. What these newcomers don’t realize is the criminal element exists within their group of weirdo eager leaders. Besides neighbors’ previously erecting tall fences between units, the do-gooders go awry, creating a non-commissioned, military-style, gated battlefield out of their once-pleasant area.
Self-righteous Martin and Hilda, are well intended. So’s retired military man, Rod, (Victor Brandalise), who enjoys taking the law into his own hands. Dorothy Doggett, (Anne Marie Shea) gossipy eyes and ears of Bluebell Hill, is a former newspaperwoman, who actually handles small ads, not news, for the local paper, and eagerly tells all about neighborhood watch committee members and other neighbors. Mousy Gareth Janner (Robert Bonnotto) is a closet creator of torture devices, who enjoys tinkering in his garage, recreating punitive devices like stocks and pillories to punish neighborhood offenders and set an example to others. Gareth is married to young, sexy, seductive blonde floozy, Amy, (Ashley Risteen) who’s frustrated, bored and carrying on affairs with other Bluebell Hill husbands.
Lynn R. Guerra is neurotically timid and tormented as Magda, private music teacher, who’s married to burly Luther Bradley,( Damon Singletary). Magda is frightened, abused, not by the riff-raff down the road, but her husband, who refuses to be part of the neighborhood watch madness. Bradley’s confrontation with Martin is humorously horrid.
Watching this terrific cast, under Zeitgeist Director-Producing Artistic Director David Miller’s deft direction, is contemporary theater at its best. With taut timing, the cast and crew highlight every satirical, yet horrifying, series of events gone wrong, ending in tragedy.
Miller also designed the functional, handsome set, and Michael Clark Wonson’s lighting and David Reiffel’s sound design artistically switch moods, from comedic to dramatic, romantic to tragic.
Miller has a divine gift of vividly portraying Ayckbourn’s message and its relevance to today’s warped society on Black Box Theatre’s stage, keeping theatergoers mesmerized. We laugh at Ayckbourn’s self-appointed, self-serving neighborhood watch group, then wonder what we’re laughing about.
BOX INFO: New England premiere of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s 2-1/2 hour, two-act satire, appearing with Zeitgeist Stage Company, now through March 1 at Boston Center for the Arts’ Black Box Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont St., South End, Boston. Performances: Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m.; Sunday, 4 p.m. Advance tickets, $25; day of performance, $30; seniors, students, $20. Call 617-933-8600, visit BostonTheatreScene.com or www.ZeitgeistStage.com.