The words used to describe the work of Alan Ayckbourn have tended to cluster in a familiar adjectival precinct: witty, clever, droll.
But “Orwellian’’ seems a better fit for “Neighbourhood Watch,’’ Ayckbourn’s 75th play, now at Zeitgeist Stage Company in a sharp and incisive production directed by David J. Miller.
Within the satire of “Neighbourhood Watch’’ lies a cautionary tale about the human tendency to abuse power, the related impulse toward authoritarianism, and the general perils of groupthink and the mob mentality. Somewhere George is smiling, grimly.
Granted, the mob in question is a small and outwardly genteel one: the mostly middle-aged British residents of a suburban subdivision who, in their fussy eccentricity, are not unlike many other characters Ayckbourn has created over the years. However, their dark side begins to show when they band together to form a crime-watch group. It’s an act that goes catastrophically awry, a textbook illustration of the law of unintended consequences — not that the intended consequences are anything to cheer about.
The group’s driving force is the brother-sister tandem of Martin and Hilda, devout Christians who are portrayed at Zeitgeist by Bob Mussett and Shelley Brown. No sooner have Martin and Hilda arrived at the Bluebell Hill Development than Martin clashes with a neighborhood youth. The brother and sister are whipped into a state of fearful agitation by residents Rod (Victor Brandalise) and Dorothy (Ann Marie Shea), full of warnings about the housing project down the road. They also freely dish out gossip about the siblings’ new neighbors: the meek Magda (Lynn R. Guerra), married to the bullying Luther (Damon Singletary); the nebbishy Garreth (Robert Bonotto) and his wife, Amy (Ashley Risteen), who is having an affair with Luther. To these interactions Ayckbourn brings his customarily keen eye for the fine distinctions of social class and the quirks of individual personality.
For instance, Martin owns a garden gnome to which he is so attached that he’s gone so far as to give it a name, Monty. When someone destroys Martin’s beloved Monty, he is infuriated, declaring: “This is war. War!’’
He’s not kidding. Before long, with Martin as its spearhead, the neighborhood watch group has established a kind of martial law, with trappings of a police state that include armed patrols, official identity cards, and 10-foot-high security fences topped with razor wire. In a shrewd touch by Ayckbourn that demonstrates how one form of zealotry begets another and that carries echoes of “The Crucible’’ and “The Scarlet Letter,’’ members of the Bluebell Hill watch group also begin looking for ways to use their newfound power to impose a crackdown on morality and settle some personal scores. Stocks are involved, and not the Wall Street kind.
Though Ayckbourn’s study of vigilantism run amok was written before the fatal 2012 shooting in Florida of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, the play unavoidably evokes the case. (Zimmerman was acquitted last year of second-degree murder and manslaughter.)
Director Miller works skillfully within the confined space of the Plaza Black Box Theatre. As he frequently does with productions at Zeitgeist, where he is the founding artistic director, Miller also designed the set, dominated by a pair of curved divans that face each other across an alabaster coffee table. He and his design team, including David Reiffel on sound and Michael Clark Wonson on lights, team up effectively to conjure an atmosphere of paranoia and chaos.
As Martin and Hilda, Mussett and Brown are equally convincing in the warmth of their sibling rapport and in the chill of their slide from idealism into absolutism. Strong supporting performances come from Shea, quite funny as Dorothy; Bonotto as Garreth, especially when the character creepily embraces the punitive and vindictive possibilities of his technical skills; and Singletary as Luther, a man who is despicable in one respect and the voice of reason in another. Risteen is a treat as Amy; the character is a bombshell to whom there just might be more than meets the eye. As Rod, Brandalise falters, never quite managing to gain control over his accent or the role.
Her hands balled into fists, her eyes wide and scared, Guerra is a poignant Magda, especially when the character discloses a disturbing secret about her past to Hilda and Dorothy. Though it’s somewhat contrived, Magda’s revelation is a potent reminder, like much of “Neighbourhood Watch,’’ that fanaticism has enduring consequences.Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@