“Beware of the British spinster” might as well be the tagline for Neighbourhood Watch, the first-rate Alan Ayckbourn play being given a second-rate production by director Alan Ayckbourn at 59E59 Theaters.
When first we meet her, Hilda (a superb Alexandra Mathie) is a grief-stricken sister, mourning the tragic loss of her younger brother while dedicating a park to his memory. The rest of the evening is a lengthy flashback, deeply satisfying and ultimately as suffused with mounting horror as a Shirley Jackson classic.
Newly moved to Bluebell Hill Development, a well-to-do neighborhood situated distressingly near the council flats, Hilda and Martin (Matthew Cottle) are quick to invite their neighbors over for tea. The motley crew who assemble include retired security man Rod (Terence Booth), cuckholded husband Gareth (Richard Derrington), his flashy-trashy wife Amy (Frances Grey) and neighborhood gossip Dorothy (Eileen Battye). As they spin stories of police incompetence and the council flat hooligans who trespass on private property, we see an idea form as if in a cartoon bubble over the heads of professed devout Christians Martin and Hilda: form a neighborhood watch.
Ayckbourn proceeds to tease out the repercussions of allowing ordinary, somewhat repressed citizens full power to its logical extreme: a microcosm of a fascist country, complete with check-in points and a debate over strip searches when one is entering or leaving the newly gated community. The play itself is better than the shabby production is has received as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, one that finds designer Pip Leckenby substituting plain black walls for the frequently discussed (and mocked) sickly green drawing room. And the cast isn’t quite up to snuff, either, particular Grey’s Amy. Her performance is a delicious blend of vamp and truth-teller, but in her bright red wig and her barely-there costumes (also courtesy of Leckenby), it’s unimaginable that she should have ever married Derrington’s Gareth.
Where Neighbourhood Watch and Ayckbourn-as-director shine brightest is in the handling of Hilda and Martin’s relationship. They still retain the closeness of siblings raised by a single parent (one who represented a common enemy from the sound of it), but that closeness has calcified into something creepy as they near 40. Hilda is jealous of Amy’s attentions to her brother; Martin has abandoned all hope of persuading Hilda that her ideas about interior design may not always be ideal. As their relationship turns slowly antagonistic, Martin perks up and Hilda turns icily manipulative, turning the screws on an abused neighbor as a means to an end. Mathie’s penultimate scene, as Hilda prepares for a funeral, is a chilling, bleak study in the futility of trying to outwit the deviously devout.
Through Jan. 1, 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St., www.59e59.org.
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