The “war on terror” becomes the target of Scottish playwright Henry Adam’s dark and ineffective comedy “The People Next Door,” which is receiving its first American production at Yale Rep after an imported version played Gotham last year as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival.
The work at first appears especially timely, as it deals with unchecked law enforcement using national security as its shield, ignoring laws, eschewing warrants, invading apartments, framing innocents and coercing assistance under threats of eviction — or worse.
But this long and repetitive work — first performed in 2003 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival — offers little depth, surprise or complexity. Big Brother is merely a cliche bully. The idea that pop culture dominates society is ho-hum. And the feel-good ending of lonely, marginalized neighbors uniting to form an alternative family is more “7th Heaven” than “Prime Suspect.” Ideas of racism, police states and societal paranoia are tossed about, but they don’t add up to much because beneath its ripped-from-the-headlines hype is a piece with a sitcom heart and a laugh-track soul.
At the play’s center is Nigel (Manu Narayan, late of tuner “Bombay Dreams”). Nigel is a sweet and mentally fragile soul, living off disability checks in a small, dismal housing project in Britain. Nigel, the 25-year-old son of a British mother and a Pakistani father, is content to be a dippy slacker, watching TV, playing with his Xbox and smoking a spliff.
It’s not much, but it suits the childlike, perpetually giggling Nigel — until his apartment is invaded by desperate rogue cop Phil (Christopher Innvar). Phil’s determined to find Nigel’s half-brother, whom he believes is part of a terrorist cell.
Nigel is bullied into lending assistance in finding his pure-blooded Pakistani sibling, whom he hasn’t seen in years. The scheme eventually includes Nigel wearing a wire into a mosque, a place where he increasingly finds spiritual comfort.
Adam creates a weird and not entirely credulous relationship between the tormentor and the simpleton that devolves into a kind of vaudeville — with interchangeable parts. Both are stressed out, both are outcasts and both have a warped sense of reality, due in no small part to the pop culture of comicbooks, videogames and “The Sopranos.”
Elsewhere in Nigel’s small world is a perky elderly neighbor (Marcia Jean Kurtz), a survivor of the Blitz who talks to a portrait of her dead husband. There’s also Nigel’s 15-year-old friend, Marco (James Miles), the son of a prostitute, who also feels lonely and displaced.
Perhaps the work’s simple-mindedness might have been more palatable if the play was brief (it runs for nearly 2½ hours), the comedy had more snap and bite (too many of the jokes are clunkers) and the characters were not so cute, coy or cloying under helmer Evan Yionoulis. (Even some of the violent acts have that TV twinkle.)
Narayan works tirelessly to make Nigel’s innocent stoner appealing, but Adam has not developed the character well, and the perf’s paranoid tics — pulling his T-shirt and sweatshirt over his head, and even sucking his thumb — become less and less interesting as the play trods on. Other thesps veer toward caricature.
Production features a fragmented set by Kanae Heike that nicely captures the mess of Nigel’s life and the cutesy flat of the nosy neighbor. Kate Cusack’s costumes have that long-lived-in look.