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Paulanne Simmons

Ayckbourn Channels Orwell in “Neighborhood Watch”

“Neighborhood Watch”
Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn
59E59 Theaters
Brits off Broadway
Opened Dec. 7, 2011
Tues. thru Thurs. at 7pm, Fri. at 8pm, Sat. at 2pm & 3pm, Sun. at 3pm & 7pm.
Holiday schedule varies: matinees added Friday, December 16 at 2 PM and Wednesday, December 28 at 2 PM.
Tickets: $65 (212) 279-4200 www.59e59.org
Closes: Jan. 1, 2011
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Dec. 7, 2011

When we first find out that middle-aged siblings Hilda (Alexandra Mathie) and Martin Massie (Matthew Cottle), the principles in Alan Ayckbourn’s new comedy, “Neighborhood Watch,” are moving in together at The Bluebell Hill Development, it seems a bit weird. But nothing can prepare us for the mayhem that follows, not even Hilda’s opening monologue, which makes it clear that Martin has died as the result of some heroic action.

The play starts slowly, a fact that Ayckbourn’s otherwise crisp direction cannot alter, although if he had entrusted his work to another, a fresh eye might have caught on. But Ayckbourn does quickly establish that Hilda and Martin are nothing if not eccentric. For one thing they have a piece of lawn statuary, a gnome named Monty, which they speak of as though the little fellow were quite human. And as if Monty were not enough, they also have a statue of Jesus “keeping an eye on things.”

Martin and Hilda (whom the excellent Cottle and Mathie make outrageous but never unsuitably grotesque ) seem to be comfortable with their battiness. They might have lived out their lives in quiet insanity if they had not become friends with a group of misfits who allow and encourage the sibling’s personal manias to develop.

Dorothy Doggett (Eileen Battye) is a widow with little to take up her time save gossiping. Rod Trusser (Terence Booth) is a paranoid who prides himself on his experience in “the security service” and the army. Gareth Janner (the magnificently creepy Richard Derrington) is an engineer whose specialty turns out to be medieval devices of torture (his lecture on the difference between stocks and pillory is enlightening). He is married to Amy (Frances Grey), a much younger woman whose stoplight red hair signals her status as the town trollop. Magda Bradley (Amy Loughton) is a music teacher and a closeted gay married to the abusive Luther (Phil Cheadle), the only naysayer in the group.

When Martin mistakes a clarinetist for a trespasser, his neighbors convinced him Bluebell Hill is surrounded by criminals bent on theft and destruction, and poorly defended by an incompetent and indifferent police force. He decides to form a Neighborhood Watch, and soon all hell breaks loose.

The initiatives Martin and his cohorts introduce are of a familiar Orwellian nature. They erect ten-foot security fences with razor wire. They issue official identity cards necessary for entering and leaving Bluebell Hill. Wardens are appointed to guard every corner and floodlights erected to illuminate the streets.

Then, just when you’re waiting for the pigs to come out chanting “Four legs good, two legs better!” the fascist state Martin has created is undermined by lust, regret and a bit of common sense. But it’s too late.

“Neighborhood Watch,” Ayckbourn’s 75th play, attacks the middle class in ways that should be familiar to anyone who knows the playwright’s work. His characters are foolish, prejudiced, petty and only sometimes well-meaning. Most of all, they are for the most part totally unaware of their own motives. That Ayckbourn can make these all too human characters also very funny is what turns messy life into satiric comedy.

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