Zeitgeist's "Neighbourhood Watch": No Place Like Gnome

Monty (Montmorency) in "Neighbourhood Watch"
(Photo: Joel Benjamin)

Having moved us to tears of sadness with their recent production of “Normal Heart”, Zeitgeist Stage Company now proceeds to move us to tears of joy as they present the New England premiere of the biting satire “Neighbourhood Watch” by Alan Ayckbourn, Britain’s answer to Neil Simon. As this is Ayckbourn’s seventy-fifth work (of seventy-eight, and still counting), perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to Simon as America’s Ayckbourn. In any case, it’s cause for rejoicing, even if it’s a deviation from the playwright’s norm. Instead of serial guffaws, this play elicits more gentle chortles, with a serious tone atypical for this author, a return to his darker farces. It seems the residents of Bluebell Hill Development have set up a Neighbourhood Watch Scheme in response to a minor misunderstanding that leads to near universal overreaction. Along the way, the playwright skewers his countrymen’s pretentious social climbers in the British caste system.

The action takes place in the newly-acquired home of Martin Massey (Bob Musset) and his spinster sister Hilda (Shelley Brown). Martin (the owner of the above-mentioned gnome known as “Monty”, short for Montmorency, “bless his little head”), we quickly learn from Hilda’s eulogy, has been killed. In a flashback to the founding of the titular neighborhood watch four months prior, we see these neighbors progress from initial shared concern to outright paranoia, all the time keeping their upper lips appropriately stiffened. (As Hilda says so fittingly: “Tea first, then war”). By the time they’ve finally issued all their other neighbors their own OBDICs (Official Bluebell Development Identity Cards), things are clearly getting out of hand, especially with their (unseen) neighborly enforcers, the Wrigleys, gumming up things with their thug tactics. Escalation ensues, until Martin meets his demise while utilizing Jesus as a lethal weapon (and that’s not a typo).

Musset and Brown are a delight as the increasingly crazed siblings, as are Victor Brandalise as Rod Trusser in full curmudgeon mode, Ann Marie Shea as Dorothy Doggett, the slightly batty local gossip, Ashley Risteen as the hilariously oversexed Amy Janner, Robert Bonotto as her husband Gareth with his sadistic plans for torture, the hulking (and hunky) Damon Singletary as the jealous Luther Bradley, and Lynn R. Guerra as his wife Magda. Guerra is especially marvelous in her increasingly manic complex character. As superbly directed by the company’s Artistic Director David J. Miller (who also created the Scenic Design), these talented actors present a wild and wacky romp. The technical crew contributions are all fine, from the varied Costume Design by Tyler Kinney, to the Lighting Design by Michael Clark Wonson, the Sound Design by David Reiffel and the crucial Dialect Coaching by Christopher S. Davis.

At the close of the play, we may not have aching stomachs from serial laughter as with other Ayckbourn plays, but we’ve been treated to yet another roasting of British social climbers. And, truth to tell, a good deal of the satire could apply a lot closer to home. Happily, we’re at last presented, in the final scene, with the full Monty.

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