Friday, December 9, 2011

NYC Theater Roundup: Off-Broadway Doings

Neighbourhood Watch
Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn
Previews began November 30, 2011; opened December 7; closes January 1, 2012
Brits Off Broadway @ 59 E 59, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

Written by Thomas Bradshaw; directed by Scott Elliott
Previews began October 20, 2011; opened November 14; closes December 17
The New Group, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
Matthew Cottle and Frances Grey in Neighbourhood Watch (photo by Karl Andre Photography)
For his 75th play, the astonishingly prolific and proficient Alan Ayckbourn has created the scarily prescient Neighbourhood Watch, which premiered in North Yorkshire after riots engulfed London and other British cities last summer. With Ayckbourn’s typical precision and wit, the play explores relevant themes of law and order (or lack thereof), as a gated community finds itself at the mercy of outside lawbreakers and resorts to extreme measures for self-protection.

It’s a pair of new arrivals, the middle-aged and God-fearing brother and sister Martin and Hilda who, after fending off a would-be juvenile intruder in their own backyard, decides to start a neighborhood watch group with other like-minded folk in the Bluebell Hill development. The siblings are joined by local gossip and widower Dorothy; former security man Rod; cuckolded husband Gareth; and music teacher Magda, whose tyrant of a husband Luther wants nothing to do with them.

Martin, despite his essential passivity (and pacifism), becomes leader of the group, turning Bluebill Hill into a mini-police state with armed patrols, mandatory ID cards, barbed-wire fences and even stocks for egregious lawbreakers (which don’t work so well for anorexic teenage girls, who are able to slip out of them). Martin soon begins to enjoy the perks of being in charge, and there are not only whisperings of future political office--the group’s success at curbing crime is receiving attention from the media--but also the attention of Gareth’s supremely unfaithful wife Amy.

Ayckbourn, of course, plants weeds in this supposed garden of paradise, as the responsible law-and-order crowd can’t see past its paranoia until it is too late, and a home is burned down and one of the group is shot dead by the police who think a weapon is being brandished (it’s only a statue of Jesus, while Martin’s equally benign garden gnome was thrown through the window during an earlier melee).

As always, Ayckbourn sets up outlandishly farcical situations--especially Martin’s dalliance with the ravenously sexy Amy--and transforms them into comic nirvana by grounding his characters, however eccentric they are, in a basic realism. Like last year’s My Wonderful Day--another highlight of the annual Brits Off Broadway festival--Neighourhood Watch finds dark humor and humane insight in the everyday, even if the ending lacks a certain comic finesse.

Under Ayckbourn’s own spirited direction, which takes the full measure of his foolishly endearing characters, the formidable cast of eight is superlative separately and together, combining subtlety and broadness in a kind of ridiculously grand tango.

Frances Grey’s nymphomaniacal Amy, Alexandra Mathie’s protective Hilda and Matthew Cottle’s naive Martin are best, but kudos also go to Eileen Battye (Dorothy), Terence Booth (Rod), Phil Cheadle (Luther), Amy Loughton (Magda) and Richard Derrington (Gareth). In fact, everything about Neighbourhood Watch is so effortless that it appears to be a frivolous farce, not a corrosive satire. Stephen Tyrone Williams and Larisa Polonsky in Burning (photo by Monique Carboni)
In Burning, playwright Thomas Bradshaw obsesses on sex and death: there are numerous gay, straight and interracial couplings, funeral/memorial/cremation scenes, even a movie house murder. But there’s no discernible point of view or credible psychology, for all the screwing and killing.

Bradshaw’s story, which encompasses two generations of characters living in New York and Berlin, can be described by its sexual pairings: incestuous German neo-Nazi brother and sister; two men and 14-year-old Chris; Chris and another man, who later dies of AIDS; grown-up Chris with Franklin, cousin of Chris’ half-sister Josephine’s husband Peter; Peter, who is black, and Josephine; Peter and Gretchen, an African-born prostitute while he’s in Berlin for a gallery opening of his paintings.

It’s telling that the lone sexual act not enacted onstage is Franklin’s first sexual encounter, when he was raped by a hermaphrodite when he was 17: he only describes it to Chris before they have sex. Now that would have been something to see! The problem with so much simulated sex is that it turns the actors into mere performers: these sex scenes add nothing to our understanding of their relationships, except to discover that most of these people love anal sex, an unilluminating revelation in the scheme of things.

Bradshaw’s fixation on anal sex makes little sense on the evidence he presents: for example, if Peter really wants to screw Gretchen anally because Josephine doesn’t want to, why isn’t that shown earlier when husband and wife have sex, which is obviously loving and tender and consensual, but without any begging (from Peter) or whining (from Josephine) about what kind of sex they’re going to have.

Scott Elliott’s sharp-edged direction smoothes many bumps in Bradshaw’s script, but those that remain make for a nearly three-hour slog. Although the large and talented cast falls just short of turning Bradshaw’s chess pieces into real people, Larisa Polonsky makes the most of her brief time onstage to create a sympathetic, touching Josephine, another memorable performance by an actress who, with One Arm and now Burning, is quickly becoming one of our more reliable performers.

No comments: