It’s funny how once in a while a drama can feel more timely a few years after its premiere. Sometimes it takes a theater culture some time to acclimate itself to an unusual new work. Sometimes current events force us to look at a play with a new social outlook. Zeitgeist Stage’s production of Alan Ayckbourn’s 2011 play, Neighborhood Watch, is a clear example of the latter. Had a Boston company done Neighborhood Watch shortly after its 2011 premiere, the story of an middle-class community creating a neighborhood watch organization and violent tension among social classes might have come across as distinctively British, with little American appeal. With the Trayvon Martin shooting still on our cultural mindset, though, the play feels almost prophetically relevant. Despite some textual clichés and moments of actors lacking connection with one another, director and scenic designer David Miller leads a solid and engaging production of this timely play.
Neighborhood Watch tells the story of middle-aged brother and sister, Martin and Hilda Massey, played by Bob Mussett and Shelley Brown, as they move into an upscale housing community. Motivated by a misunderstanding with a working class youth, they start a quasi-militaristic watch group with their neighbors, a group that brings the violence out of everyone in the area. The Masseys have a mysterious dynamic. It is a strange central relationship for a play, two seemingly functional siblings still living together as grown adults. They seem to have some kind of palpable secret that no one cares to address. Why are they so emotionally dependent on each other? What is behind Hilda’s fixation on Martin’s love life? What is behind her fixation on every aspect of his life, or her strange implication at the beginning of the play that Martin is somehow mentally challenged, which seems unreasonable and never comes up again? There is an awkwardly incestuous dynamic to the duo, and despite a revealing secret about Hilda in its final scene, the play never explains fully the mysterious connection between the siblings. Musset and Brown illuminate this connection by embodying an earnest, yet uncomfortable feeling of love for each other, a tension-filled love that creates a captivating feeling of awkwardness.
The greatest strength of the ensemble is bringing out the social awkwardness present among everyone in the drama. This is a play where most of the characters are mere acquaintances with one another, united for a common purpose but ever willing to spread malicious gossip behind each other’s backs and make uncomfortable implications to each other’s faces in that terribly polite British manner. Ann Marie Shea plays Dorothy Doggett, the most gossipy character in the play, and she captures this British sensibility of faux politeness with a terrifically deep, robust voice and uptight demeanor. At times, Shea focuses a bit too much on elocution and loses a sense of palpable connection with her co-actors, but she never loses her lovely British sophistication. Victor Brandalise plays Rod Trusser, another self-minded neighbor, only without a sense of faux politeness but instead an overtly violent and crass demeanor. Brandalise strongly emits the anger of his character, but in doing so he creates a lot of tension in his voice and gesticulation that makes his performance stiff and hinders his ability to connect. Also, he’s the only one in the play whose accent sounds unrealistic. He might be attempting a dialect with which I’m not familiar, but even with that in mind, there’s so much strain in his voice, not helped by his stumbling over some of his lines, that his voice retains an inconsistent and unrealistic quality.
We have a couple of understated and realistic performances by Robert Bonotto and Ashley Risteen as unhappily married couple Gareth and Amy Janner. Bonotto’s character is quiet compared to the rest of the cast, but he speaks with such sincerity, intensity, and specificity that the few moments the play focuses on him stand out impressively, and he evokes a lot of pathos with his droopy demeanor. Risteen gives a far more energized performance, full of physical vivacity and alluring sexiness. Her dynamic with Musset is especially appealing, still sexy and sensual but with the hilariously empowering awkwardness of a confident woman seducing a virginal man. It culminates in a passionate yet bestial moment that has the audience in an uproar.
The final couple in the neighborhood is Magda and Luther Bradley, played by Lynn R. Guerra and Damon Singletary. Guerra has a difficult job in the play in that Magda Bradley is a strangely cliché character. Alan Ayckbourn is one of the most talented playwrights of the past century when it comes to crafting unique yet relatable characters, but here he writes a woman with a familiar backstory of a dark past that we’ve heard many times before. It’s jarring to have such a clichéd element in an otherwise fresh and insightful drama, but Guerra plays the character with such a tender, sweet voice and complete emotional honesty that we accept her unconditionally, only afterwards realizing the cliché of what we’ve just seen. Singletary also gives a believable performance as an abrasive, abusive husband. There is, however, something a bit unsettling in casting of the sole African-American actor in the play as its only extrovertly angry and violent character. Luther Bradley isn’t written to be black, but using the only non-white actor in the production for the role highlights the uncomfortable reality that a black actor is playing actions that embody harmful racial stereotypes. That Singletary emphasizes the character’s aggression in his performance, however effective that might be for the drama, unfortunately exacerbates the problem. There was no way he could have played the character well without creating a disconcerting racial element to the performance.
With this range of characterization, Neighborhood Watch becomes a pictorial microcosm of the social attitudes behind communal structures that lead to tragedies like the death of Treyvon Martin. Ayckbourn’s blending of comedy of manners with moments of absurdity and tragedy is as humanizing as always, giving us a socially poignant glimpse into the lives of those existing amidst a societal problem. With just a bit more work on the actors’ interconnectedness, this could be an especially great production of a problem play. Even with its flaws, Zeitgeist’s production is a worthwhile night of theater with great social relevance