Bless Zeitgeist Stage for continuing to bring us Alan Ayckbourn’s extraordinary plays. Ayckbourn junkies especially rejoice when we can see a new one. NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH (playing through March 1st) is Ayckbourn’s 75th. This particular play, written in 2011, is a bit of a departure. It’s a tragedy of sorts, wrapped in the folds of a dark comedy. The tragedy is announced from the get go. Then Ayckbourn shrewdly—and hilariously—shows us how it transpired.
You have to be a master craftsman to get audiences to laugh at the absurdity of “stand your ground” and at the same time be keenly aware of the tragic consequences. I thought of Trayvon Martin early on when the head of a British neighborhood watch group furiously chases a teenager off his property. Director David Miller navigates both of Ayckbourn’s intentions seamlessly. You’re laughing. Then you’re cringing at the possibilities for disaster when amateurs arm themselves for “protection.”
Sound designer David Reiffel has us bouncing along with a snatch of English music hall fluff, then Beethoven’s 7th plunges into our gut, reminding us that someone has been killed. I think I heard “Ombra Mai Fu” (“Oh Tree”) from Handel’s Xerxes to anticipate the opening scene in the park. Reiffel and Miller are the perfect match for Ayckbourn’s genius.
Miller has a wonderful cast to “turn a nice, peaceful community into a military zone,” in order for Bluebell Hill’s “vulnerable” residents to protect themselves. The watch group is organized by a middle aged brother and sister who have just purchased a house in the development. Shelley Brown as the zealot sister justifies their “call to action” as a “Christian” ideal. She’s marvelously frightening as her fervor escalates.
Bob Mussett as her brother doesn’t start out as a full on lunatic, so named by his nemesis (the powerhouse Damon Singletary), but he soon succumbs when the sexpot wife of another watch member loosens her scarf in his direction. Ashley Risteen provides plenty of heat to melt his “practicing pacifist” flesh. Watching Mussett writhe in guilt and embarrassment is reason alone to see the play.
Lynn R. Guerra’s non-stop hand wringing and Ann Marie Shea’s eager gossiping (and you don’t want to get Victor Brandalise started) add to the comic trajectory BUT it’s Robert Bonotto in a tour de force who steals the play away with his unbridled ecstasy over the idea of medieval torture.