The People Next Door
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 28, 2005
The People Next Door, a play by Henry Adam that is now at 59e59 as part of their Brits Off Broadway festival, is about Nigel Brunswick. Nigel—26, the result of a sad, brief fling between a Pakistani Muslim man and a lower-class English woman—is one of life's forgotten people. Psychologically damaged, addicted to drugs and cigarettes and booze, he's ill-equipped to do much of anything; he lives on the dole in public housing someplace in England, where his neighbors are Mrs. MacCallum, a dotty old Scots woman who talks to her late husband's photo, and a prostitute whose 15-year-old son, Marco, is Nigel's closest pal.
For all his relative poverty and isolation, though, Nigel is a pretty happy guy. Until, that is, his flat is invaded one morning by an aggressive cop named Phil, a post-9/11 Rambo type bent on catching terrorists. Phil has evidence that Nigel's half brother Karim is a terrorist, and he wants Nigel to help locate him. To persuade Nigel, he gives him some drugs, only to threaten later on that he'll arrest him for possession if he doesn't cooperate. So Nigel does, infiltrating a mosque and eventually wearing a "wire" to spy on the Muslim men he encounters there.
Meanwhile, Marco has a fight with his mum that culminates in her beating him up pretty badly, after which Nigel takes the boy in to live with him. And Mrs. Mac (as she's called), after letting Phil convince her that Nigel might be a terrorist himself—which leads her to go snooping around Nigel's flat and almost kill somebody—has an accident with her gas stove that sends her to live with Nigel as well while her place is being renovated.
So The People Next Door marries two themes—Nigel's manipulation by the police, which leads him to discover possible enlightenment in the Koran (turns out he likes going to the mosque); and Nigel's domestication by his new makeshift family. It's interesting and often warmly and/or darkly funny, but it's a lot for one play to successfully deal with, and I'm not sure that Adam finally makes the deeper points about either subject that he intends. The politics of The People Next Door are mostly facile: Phil is a boob, and a corrupt one at that; actions of him and people like him in the Establishment drive people like Nigel to seek solutions elsewhere, maybe in religion, maybe in suicide bombings. The relationships, meanwhile, are the stuff of sitcom, with gangsta rapper-wannabe Marco bonding with conservative old Mrs. Mac over Mince and Tatties.
Two final scenes, "resolving" the Phil/Karim subplot, both feel tacked on and gratuitous.
There's stuff to commend The People Next Door to an American audience, notably the chance to hear the homespun wisdom of a bona fide survivor of an actual attack on her homeland by another country (Mrs. Mac, who lived through the Nazi air raids of London), along with the somewhat jarring experience of seeing 9/11 through our closest allies' alien eyes. But I never fundamentally believed this play: I don't think that police are desperate enough to turn someone as obviously unreliable as Nigel into an undercover operative; and, much as I'd like to, I can't really buy the transformation of the denizens of a multicultural housing project into a loving family of latter-day Waltons.
The production, imported from Scotland (where it premiered at the Traverse Theatre about two years ago), is expert. Miriam Buether's design places all the necessary locations neatly into a single, deliberately cramped unit set. Ian Grieve's staging is brisk and urgent. Performances—all four of the actors being original cast members—range from Mary McCusker's marvelously spry and witty take on Mrs. Mac to Mark McDonnell's over-the-top bluster as Phil the Cop. Daniel Redmond, who plays Marco, is fine, but he's starting to look a little old for this part. Ronny Jhutti, in the central role of Nigel, is outstanding, showing us the many sides of this sad, neglected little man. He's a hero to root for, despite his bad ways. He deserves to have a more plausible play than this one built around him.