It’s not the most lighthearted of comedies. Yet, coming in Zeitgeist Stage Company’s season immediately after an emotionally wrenching play about the early AIDS crisis (Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart”), the troupe’s next production is intended to lighten the mood a bit.
But just a bit.
“It’s a comedy where the main character gets shot,” sums up director David J. Miller. (That’s not much of a spoiler since the info is referenced in the play’s opening lines, a quick fast-forward to the memorial service of the protagonist.) “It’s OK to go to the theater and laugh. But with some of the elements,” he continues, “you laugh and say: Why am I laughing? That’s horrible!”
In its depiction of a volunteer security patrol that spirals out of control into unintended violence, Alan Ayckbourn’s “Neighbourhood Watch” seems tragically prescient in light of the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, five months after the play’s premiere in September 2011. An early scene even shows the ill-fated main character (a seemingly innocuous man of indeterminate profession named Martin) darting outside to physically confront a teenage boy, mistaking a harmless object for a dangerous weapon.
Though the play is set in an English housing development and laced with class resentments particular to that milieu, its collection of eight characters — most of whom harbor a seething mistrust of government and are quick to judge the morals of their neighbors — will be plainly recognizable to American audiences.
“It almost seems to follow the arc of a tragedy rather than comedy,” observes Bob Mussett, who plays Martin, a man in his 40s who has scarcely moved into new digs with his prim sister, Hilda, before announcing plans to build a security fence in the yard.
Martin is convinced the poorer residents of a public housing project down the hill present a looming menace, and he organizes his new neighbors into a watch group to enhance their security. Perhaps seeking to solidify their grasp on a middle-class lifestyle that threatens to crumble beneath their feet, the neighbors seek a bulwark against the chaos they perceive outside their walls.
“At the beginning he’s of the mind that here’s something he can control, and he can do this in a rational manner. Because good people getting together and taking a stand is what will change things,” Mussett says, discussing the play before rehearsal on a recent evening.
Though the ways in which the neighborhood watch quickly begins overreaching are comical — like placing stocks in the roundabout in front of the housing development, supposedly as a deterrent — underlying the action is a chilling statement about the potential for the wheels of bureaucracy to churn toward violence.
As the watch group becomes an all-purpose tool for social control, with newly empowered neighbors targeting each other’s alcohol use and even infidelity, a menagerie of characters joust to see their own particular concerns addressed.
“It’s all people who are somehow disconnected, perhaps, from the outside world,” says Shelley Brown, who plays Hilda. “They form this group that is bound by an alliance against a perceived common enemy. Of course, the enemy becomes us.”
In his role as producing artistic director, Miller has followed audience response and made a later Ayckbourn play a regular feature of the Zeitgeist season in recent years. In 2010, “Private Fears in Public Places,” a study of urban loneliness, became the company’s hottest seller to date, Miller says. Subsequent productions of Ayckbourn’s “My Wonderful Day” and “Time of My Life” each captured Elliot Norton Award nominations for outstanding fringe theater production. “Neighbourhood Watch” is the playwright’s 75th play. (His 78th will be produced this summer in England.)
Though the work of this wry British playwright was not exactly a building block of Zeitgeist’s mission statement when Miller founded the company in 2001, Zeitgeist has since become closely identified with Ayckbourn’s more recent work. Like “Life of Riley” last season, “Neighbourhood Watch” is a New England premiere. When the play had its New York debut in 2011, Miller caught the production and had the chance to meet the playwright and tell him his work is received well these days in Boston.
The accidental synergy gives Zeitgeist a chance to feature a well-known playwright with a following, while sticking to its focus on contemporary plays with social relevance. Miller and his cast cite the rise of the Tea Party, as well as the Zimmerman case, as recent American reflections of the themes considered in the play.
“I like comedies that also have messages, and this one kind of has a strong message and certainly gives you something to reflect on, especially as tied to contemporary events and perceptions of government and institutions,” Miller says. “And the risk of too much hubris, trying to take too much power into your own hands when you fool yourself into thinking you’re equipped to do that.”
As Amy, a saucy character with a more liberal view of ethical propriety (and of sexual discretion) than her neighbors, Ashley Risteen portrays an outsider within a clique whose ranks are rapidly closing against her. She says the play shows the danger of “the enemy within.”
“The people they end up waging the war against are the people they first set out to protect,” she says.
Even if the fate of security-minded Martin is revealed at the top of the play, his journey from here to there should provoke some thoughts about groupthink and violence. And even a few laughs.