Ever had a neighbor you just couldn't stand? Was his yard too messy, or too neat? Did he paint his house fluorescent yellow? Did his backyard garden encroach on your property line by a foot? Did you ultimately harbor thoughts of murder? Well, of course you did.
We all have those thoughts flit through our heads, but we ignore them, unlike Clay, the lead character in An Impending Rupture of the Belly by Matt Pelfrey, now at None Too Fragile Theater. Clay and his wife Terri are expecting their first child, but terrors are roaming free in the world and Clay is feeling beset on all sides by potential and imagined disasters involving riots, people spraying Dodger Stadium with smallpox from a crop duster, bird flu, you name it.
Trying to slow his roll, Terri suggests that Clay launch his campaign against looming worldwide holocausts by starting small: convincing their neighbor Doug to stop his dog from taking a daily dump on their lawn. Big mistake. As anyone who watches Fear Thy Neighbor on Investigation Discovery knows, the smallest crack in a relationship with a person living next to you can escalate into horrific violence.
This idea has been explored in other plays and films, including Neighbors, the 1981 flick starring John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd, or the 2014 version with Seth Rogen and Zac Efron. In these works, a man decides his home is his castle and he fights to protect his family.
So when Terri targets Doug, Clay's paranoia is triggered and we can all sense what's coming. Even though the plot points are fairly predictable, playwright Pelfrey knows how to wind the tension tight, one small turn after another. He's adept at crafting some out-there characters that amuse even as they terrify. And the NTF cast, under the direction of Sean Derry, ratchets up the ever-hastening doom.
Andrew Narten is ideal as Clay, a man attempting to make a macho stand in all the wrong ways and quivering with repressed violence. He is goaded on by his co-worker Eugene (a hot-tempered Mark Rabant), a typical red-ass loudmouth, the "likes to fight" guy most of us have overheard in bars.
Also, Clay is hounded by brother Ray, a burnout druggie who once fronted a band called Scrotus. With Ray and Eugene whispering sweet murmurings of impending apocalypse in his ear, Clay begins to turn his nightmare fears into action. It all begins with a six-pound bag of dog poop that he collects and intends to smear all over Doug's pristine bentgrass. Eventually, that prank escalates into a much more disturbing incident involving swinging a golf club in a way not foreseen by Ping.
Performed on a basically bare stage with minimal set pieces, the bulk of the 85-minute one-act relies on the cast to make the proceedings compelling. As Ray, Benjamin Gregorio is a coiled bit of nastiness, and he has some of the best lines. At one early point, Gregorio's Ray laments his fate by noting "you follow your dreams and end up in downtown L.A. with no pants." And sure enough, we first see him at a phone booth, with no pants.
Brian Jackson is nicely threatening as a slightly fey Doug, who dismisses Clay's threats at his own peril. Kelly Strand creates an interesting presence as Terri, almost the "voice of reason" but then again, not quite. And Rob Grant adds another layer of ominous threat as Doug's imaginary brother.
Clearly, Pelfrey has updated this 10-year-old script to include unmistakable references to the current political climate, as when Eugene urges Clay to retaliate against Doug by imploring him to "Grab him by the pussy!" And, yes, the comparison is valid, since all countries on the planet are now "next-door neighbors," thanks to the internet, cyber-hacking and intercontinental ballistic missiles. It is terrifying to think that two of those neighbors that have world-ending weapons are currently headed by infantile leaders — the Don & Kim Show — who might be tempted to lash out at any time, with nukes instead of a 5-iron.
As Clay mentions, a man's home is like a country and it must be defended. But it's easy for that simple idea to be distorted beyond all reason (ie., the idea, proposed in the play, for mail slots in the front door that double as gun slots). That is the metaphor that fuels this play, making it resonate with a particular chilling effectiveness.
In one of his ramblings, Ray says he wants to "roam the concrete veldt like a true artistic predator." Great words, but a scary thought when you know those predators are the same people who, with pants on or off, have their finger on the button.