“Imagine living in a block and not knowing who was on the other side of the wall?” retorts landlady Mrs. McCallum when asked if she knows her downstairs neighbor, Nigel. To Mrs. McCallum, the idea that one’s neighbors could be complete strangers seems laughable. But as Henry Adam’s “The People Next Door” demonstrates, the question is a serious one.
Adam’s play is hot off the grill — its punchy language, pop culture references, and insistent techno music all smack of this very moment, but its subject matter (fear of terrorism) is hardly a new phenomenon. Terrorism has been at the forefront of American awareness for years now, and in 2003, when the events of “The People Next Door” are set, the necessity to react to the tragedy of Sept. 11 seems to be growing stale. As Mrs. McCallum flips channels, she comes across a news story about the war and reflects, “It’s been the same story for the past two years — you tell me what’s news about that.”
In today’s Patriot Act world, when progress stagnates and the motive behind persecution becomes unclear, we tend to suspect everyone in order to maintain a sense of urgency. This makes “The People Next Door” all the more relevant — it not only takes us behind those suspicious closed doors, but displays the interiors of the characters’ apartments on stage for the entire audience to see. What we find is certainly surprising, but not at all what we may have expected.
The play opens with Nigel (Manu Narayan), a Muslim gangsta wannabe with an accent that suggests a combination of Ebonics, cockney, and Ali G, smoking cocaine off of his “coffee table” assembled from an ironing board, a milk crate and a stack of phone books. Adam quickly establishes the rhythm of Nigel’s life: he is routinely pestered by the good-natured landlady Mrs. McCallum (Marcia Jean Kurtz), he bums around London with his 15-year-old friend Marco (James Miles) and most importantly, he insists that he is a gangsta. Nigel’s routine is suddenly interrupted when giant white “Supercop” Phil (Christopher Innvar) bursts into his flat one day and embroils him in an urgent search for Nigel’s estranged brother Kazim, a suspected terrorist.
But instead of dealing with terrorism in the sensationalized manner that we see every day on the news, Adam’s play becomes more of a commentary on individualism than politics. At one point, Phil declares that the terrorists “all want us to be Muslims, whether we like it or not,” but the clear reality is that Phil has already lost his individuality. His pursuit of the enemy has become so all-consuming that, like those who strap bombs to their backs, he is willing to resort to extreme measures.
In contrast to some of the play’s more maniacal moments, some unexpectedly touching ones highlight the humanity, loneliness and need that stem from today’s climate of alienation and persecution. Nigel and Marco’s scenes are particularly wonderful, whether they are pretending to be playground cowboys or suddenly realizing a father-son dynamic. Director Evan Younoulis expertly crafts these moments, successfully shifting the play’s dynamic to that of a quest for family in a scary world rather than just depicting scary world itself.
The cast as a whole is impressive, but Narayan is especially astounding as Nigel, incited by his troubles to clamber from the position of a thumb-sucking, T-shirt pulling deadbeat to that of an enlightened character. Indeed, Nigel seems to have a better sense of self than other characters in the play and, very possibly, many members of the audience. At every stage in his transformation, Narayan peppers Nigel with exceptionally detailed comedic quirks and imbues him with an extremely relatable honesty.
It is this is honesty that makes “The People Next Door” worth seeing. Obviously, we must consider the play’s overarching messages about terrorism, but we can learn even more from spending a few hours in Nigel’s living room. Perhaps it will teach us to moderate our suspicion wit a touch of humility.