Zeitgeist Stage Company has recently made a specialty of Brit playwright Alan Ayckbourn's later works, gently astute satires less architecturally dazzling in their pursuit of the mostly married English middle class than the likes of The Norman Conquests and House & Garden. Goodness knows there is a lot to choose from when staging Ayckbourn: Neighbourhood Watch is the 74-year-old playwright's 75th play. But the more recent, less virtuosically constructed pieces are tricky. Neighbourhood Watch, in which a conservative Christian brother and sister move into a suburban development and proceed to organize a community vigilante group that goes seriously amok, is a comedy — and prescient in light of the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin just six months after its premiere. But the play hops tonally among social satire, genuine domestic distress, and escalating absurdity as events spiral, not without some strain, out of control. And the characters, albeit turned mad as hatters by paranoia coupled with power, are meant to be well-meaning if somewhat delusional folks, not barking, seething caricatures. It all proves too big a challenge for the variously skilled amateurs who comprise director David J. Miller's eight-person cast.
Puffed-up but mousy Martin Massey and his prim sister Hilda have just moved into the Bluebell Hill Development and have invited their neighbors for tea. Just as the housewarming commences, however, Martin spots a teen from a nearby housing estate scaling his fence. He attacks the kid (who gets away), for some reason seizing the box he is carrying. Among the first guests to arrive is ex-security guard Rod, who thinks the confiscated case must contain a sniper rifle — which gives you an idea of the nervous imagination permeating the air even before it gets fanned. Also chugging in on the welcome wagon are Bluebell Hill's biggest gossip, retired newspaper woman Dorothy; furtive engineer Gareth, licking wounds inflicted by his sexy young wife, town tart Amy; and the couple next door, menacing Luther and his cowering music-teacher wife, Magda. Over the course of a few months, these variously do-gooding if narrow-minded folks (excluding Amy, whose liberality knows no bounds), divided into neat little parliamentary committees with Martin as their leader, will occupy their little lives with turning Bluebell Hill into a fortress enveloped by chain-link and barbed wire, with ID cards for coming and going, and even a set of stocks set amid the daffodils for the punishment of miscreants.
Ayckbourn's play begins with a teary, overlong monologue in which we learn the fate (sans the hilarious details) of the main character. And the first scenes, full of helpfully proffered tattle, are but tepidly amusing. Ayckbourn's scenario perks up as it gets loopier, with Gareth sharing his design portfolio of medieval torture devices and Rod signing up Bluebell Hill's most psychopathic family of thugs to have a "quiet word" with the father of the teen accosted in the first scene. Even the devout Hilda, driven beyond the bend by Amy's seduction of Martin, starts brainstorming with Gareth about modern means of tarring and feathering! And, of course, we get the point that we have met the enemy and he is us.
Miller, who also designed the siblings' proper pea-green parlor, capably follows the arc of the play, keeping things natural even as they become more and more deranged. But not all of the cast members help him out in that regard. Though more Hollywood than Hampstead, Ashley Risteen is a breath of fresh, flirtatious air as the libidinous Amy, and Lynn R. Guerra is a quivering yet sympathetic mass of anxiety as the abused and troubled Magda. As Martin, liberated from his shell by power, publicity, and the bedside ministrations of Amy, Bob Mussett is likewise credible. But many in the cast make their characters seem crazy, as well as crazy suspicious, from the get-go. And that gives two pounding left feet to Ayckbourn's march from tea and treachery to vigilantes gone wild.