Daniel Redmond and Ronny Jhutti
in The People Next Door
Photo © Douglas Robertson
Daniel Redmond and Ronny Jhutti
in The People Next Door
Photo © Douglas Robertson
More Britcom than social satire, The People Next Door has some effective moments of comedy, but the play falls under the weight of its own ambition. Writer Henry Adam's dialogue is made for zingers, not for character development. Director Ian Grieve cues the broad acting for a laugh track rather than for emotional realism. The plot stretches the limits of plausibility, and the social commentary barely pushes the envelope farther than a State of the Union address.

Estranged from his family, young Nigel Brunswick (Ronny Jhutti) lives on the dole that he's collecting for a narcotic-induced psychological condition. Between his drugs, alcohol, and video games, he's blissfully unaware of major events around the world until his equally clueless friend, Marco (Daniel Redmond), informs him about the recent terrorist attack on the "Empire State Building." Shortly after, a British secret service agent named Phil (Mark McDonnell) shows up at his doorstep to find out the whereabouts of his half-brother, who's wanted for terrorist activities in Yemen. It soon becomes clear that Phil will try to crack the case by any means necessary.

Through trickery and extortion, Phil eventually forces Nigel to become an undercover spy at a local mosque, and the mission sends Nigel (née Salif) on a personal and spiritual awakening. He rediscovers his Pakistani heritage, and religion gives him a new direction in life. But he soon finds himself trapped between the strong-arm of the state and his respect for his newfound friends. Here, the playwright sets up an interesting conflict that raises questions of self-interest vs. community, identity vs. nationalism, and courage vs. cowardice.

Unfortunately, he blows it with a slipshod finale. Instead of Nigel owning up to a decision, the agent abjures the character of personal responsibility through a ridiculous plot twist involving a gun, a videotape, and an old granny (Mary McCusker) wielding a sharp object. Phil, already performed as a caricature, becomes a moustache-twirling villain whose downfall has about as much impact as Wile E. Coyote's plunge off the Grand Canyon.

One-liners and sight gags trump character and plot development too often elsewhere in the play, and the playwright has a particular habit of overdoing Nigel's naïveté. For example, when his friend Marco tells him that Phil might have ties to the C.I.A., Nigel asks, "C.I.A? What's that? Like 'Mission Impossible'?" In another scene, the character sucks his thumb when the "supercop" bullies him. Other routines hit the mark, as when Phil "tests" to see if Nigel is guilty of drug possession by smoking the residue left on his foil.

The over-the-top performances call attention to the shortcomings of the writing. Ronny Jhutti moves around way too much, even for a character that spends most of his time tripping on cocaine. Same goes for McDonnell, who often confuses volume with intensity. Daniel Redmond's Marco gesticulations almost seem restrained in comparison, but he falls short in the more dramatic scenes. The evening's best performance goes to Mary McCusker, whose portrayal of the aging widow Mrs. McCallum is a funny send-up of stodgy British conservatism.

Ian Grieve's direction is too slack, but since it's part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, all technical aspects of the production are first rate. Miriam Buether's set of shabby apartments bears the marks of age and graffiti. Mark Pritchard's lighting and Mat McKenzies sound design are unabtrusive. In fact, they have a subtlety that the play itself lacks.