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Safety overkill in farcical 'Neighbourhood Watch'

"We have met the enemy, and he is us," the comic-strip character Pogo said in 1970, a telling comment about people who think everybody else is the problem and not themselves.
/ Source: The Associated Press

"We have met the enemy, and he is us," the comic-strip character Pogo said in 1970, a telling comment about people who think everybody else is the problem and not themselves.

Playwright Alan Ayckbourn is a master at poking fun at sanctimonious hypocrisy, continuing the tradition in his 75th play, a wickedly funny new satire, "Neighbourhood Watch" that opened Wednesday night at 59E59 Theaters, as part of Brits Off Broadway.

Ayckbourn, who also directed the witty, cautionary tale, is the first British playwright to receive both Olivier and Tony Special Lifetime Achievement Awards. In his dark new farce, presented by The Stephen Joseph Theatre, (of Scarborough, Yorkshire, England), an initially innocuous group of middle-class suburban neighbors gradually extends their local security program into fascistic mayhem.

Mild-mannered Hilda and Martin, (played by the gifted duo of Alexandra Mathie and Matthew Cottle) at first appear as a pleasant, good-humored, devoutly Christian brother and sister. The single, middle-aged siblings host an open house that proves a tipping point for neighborhood security, when Martin's beloved garden gnome is hurled through their glass back door. After the gnome crashes the party, Hilda marches purposefully to her kitchen, announcing, "Tea first, then war!" And she means it.

Mathie is delightfully expressive as deeply rigid, hard-eyed Hilda, who gradually reveals a much darker side. Cottle gently embodies Martin's initial inner goodness, which becomes twisted by his meteoric rise in power as the leader of the "security committee." We follow their descent into self-righteous, authoritarian prejudice in a series of committee meetings, staged on the nicely spare set of their living room designed by Pip Leckenby.

In response to a bit of vandalism and minor theft, the overly paranoid "Bluebell Hill Residents' Security Sub-committee" surrounds their development with "10-foot walls topped with razor wire," requiring special identity cards for residents.

Assigning themselves moral guardians of their neighbors, ("the danger within," as Martin pompously declares) they put miscreants on display in public stocks for minor offenses like cursing in public. As he begins to garner media attention, an increasingly strident Martin decrees, "If you don't have your identity card, not even God will be able to help you!"

Their neighbors are portrayed by six excellent actors. Terence Booth is incisively funny as dour, security-obsessed Rod, who wrathfully refers to the public housing down the hill from their homes as a "cesspit" akin to "Sodom and Gomorrah." Self-pitying cuckold Gareth (a quirky performance by Richard Derrington) eventually reveals himself to be vengefully deranged about his wife Amy's well-known adultery. A flame of sensuality amid this staid bunch, Frances Grey is lovably insouciant as Amy, a frank-speaking, orange-haired, mini-skirted flirt.

Phil Cheadle is seethingly toxic as bullying Luther, the only person who speaks out against the incursions into personal liberties. Amy Loughton is very sweet and childlike as his naive, abused wife, Magda. Eileen Battye rounds out the cast as Dorothy, the sort of gossipy, briskly competent woman essential to the success of any bureaucratic endeavor.

Scene by scene, meeting by meeting, Ayckbourn farcically reveals the slippery slope that starts with just a little bit of authority, and how easy it can become to access one's inner vigilante. The true danger is within these people's misguided, narrow-minded hearts.