Two worlds greet us every day — one filled with people who have sufficient creature comforts and productive pursuits; the other populated by those we prefer not to see or brush up against, the homeless, friendless and ailing.
How little we really know about that second group makes a provocative starting point for "Neverwhere," the fantasy novel and BBC television series by Neil Gaiman adapted for stage by Robert Kauzlaric and enjoying an effective production from Cohesion Theatre Company.
When Richard Mayhew, a young Scot in London on a smooth career path, stops to help a young, bloodied woman lying on a street (much to his fiancee's annoyance), he winds up drawn into the ultimate underclass. London Below, a mega-metaphor for everything wrong with contemporary society, is invisible to folks in London Above; this realm has its own rules, practices and dangers.
Gaiman doesn't pound out the symbolism, but weaves it deftly into a twist-filled plot overflowing with colorful characters and revolving perspectives on issues of good and evil, sacrifice and redemption, death and rebirth. (Anglophiles will especially enjoy how various London landmarks generate aspects of that plot.)
Any number of other myths, fantasies and suspense tales come to mind in "Neverwhere." I spy a touch of the Orpheus legend (a character leaving one world for another is told not to look back) and the Wagner opera "Siegfried" (in a scene involving a beast and a helpful bit of blood-tasting).
Something of Alfred Hitchcock movies might be detected, too, in the way an unsuspecting man gets swallowed up by an intrigue he can't figure out until the very end. I detect even a nod to the musical "Brigadoon" in the closing minutes, though that might be too much for a devoted "Neverwhere" fan to accept.
Whatever the influences, Gaiman spins a good, fresh yarn. And Kauzlaric's adaptation does a mostly smooth job of cramming in characters and incidents, while maintaining a coherent thread.
Likewise, director Brad Norris proves adept at keeping the Cohesion production cohesive, drawing nicely delineated portrayals from the actors (accents are respectably achieved), and keeping the pace taut enough to make a long play feel almost speedy.
Some of the dry wit in the script could use brighter delivery; that may emerge as the run continues. But the violent bits — the story gets pretty dark at times — are well in hand, deftly guided by fight choreographer Jon Rubin.
Although the company has only a bare floor at its current digs in the United Evangelical Church, every inch is put to good use. Kel Millionie's clever scenic design gets maximum mileage out of two movable platforms that can conjure up London underground trains and all sorts of other things. (The noise from shifting those platforms unfortunately covers some of the dialogue.)
Norris' fine sound design fills in lots of atmospheric detail. Samantha Callanta's costumes likewise add much to the proceedings.
Joseph Coracle gives a persuasive performance as the baffled, but brave, Mayhew. Cori Dioquino does solid work as the London Below woman with the intriguing name Door and a whole mess of trouble pursuing her.
As the shady Marquis de Carabas, Jonas David Grey proves to be a compelling presence. Rich-voiced Melanie Glickman shines in several assignments, especially that of an angel with an agenda. Frank Mancino also shows off admirable versatility. Cassandra Dutt leaves an impact as the fiercely focused Hunter.
In the roles of two unnerving denizens of the underworld, Matthew Lindsay Payne, as smooth-talking Mr. Croup, and Bobby Henneberg, as varmint-munching Mr. Vandemar, nearly walk off with the show. Payne's portrayal is all the most delectable since he sounds so much like Eric Blore, the great character actor known for butler roles in 1930s and '40s movies.
"Neverwhere" might not be a great place to live, but this theatrical vision of it is well worth visiting.