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Burning down the house

Only the polemics get really hot in The Arsonists


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As a political fable, Max Frisch's Biedermann und die Brandstifter is pretty great. Variously known to English-speaking audiences as The Firebugs, The Fire Raisers, and—in a 2007 translation by Alistair Beaton (apparently the one used in this new Trap Door Theatre production, though it's attributed to "Alistair Bead" in the program)—The Arsonists, Frisch's wicked piece of writing gives us Gottlieb Biedermann, a wealthy burgher who manufactures a useless hair elixir called Follica Plus and owns a fine house in a town that's been shaken lately by a rash of arsons. Biedermann is busy clucking over a newspaper story about the fires, in fact, when we first meet him. Seems the guilty parties walk right up to each victim's door, smooth-talk their way inside, even get the owner to put them up for a while, as guests, before they reduce the place to ashes. Biedermann can't fathom the gullibility of these folks. He'd never fall for a con like that.

And then, of course, the doorbell rings.

It's a homeless stranger named Schmitz. Biedermann initially does his best to shoo the guy away, but Schmitz weeps and wheedles and intimidates his way first into a conversation, then into a meal, and finally, sure enough, into the spare bed in Biedermann's attic. Before long he's joined up there by his partner in conflagration, Eisenring—not to mention many, many barrels of gasoline.

Eisenring is Frisch's masterstroke. Not just the brains of the outfit but the soul of the satire, he explains to Schmitz that there are three tactics he uses to gain the confidence of his bourgeois targets. One is humor and another is sentiment. But the most effective of all is the truth, since no one is prepared to deal with that.

From then on The Arsonists plays out as an object lesson, demonstrating how very right Eisenring is. He talks detonators with Biedermann, even gets his host to help him measure out lengths of fuse. And he certainly doesn't make much of an effort to hide all that gasoline.

Biedermann isn't a fool—not exactly, anyway. He's got as much low cunning as the next self-made man, and eventually catches on to the game. So why doesn't he go to the authorities about the arsonists in his house, or throw them out himself? Eisenring has an explanation for that, too. Anybody who's reached a certain level of income, he tells Schmitz, is guilty of something. Afraid that one scandal will open the way to another, they try to maintain discretion even in the face of complete disaster. And so it is with Biedermann. "Hoping," as Eisenring puts it, "that evil isn't really evil," he tries to befriend it.

First composed as a radio play, in 1953, and adapted for the stage five years later, The Arsonists is usually seen as a black-comic allegory for the rise of Nazism, which never hid its aims or means but was nevertheless invited into the homes of people who thought they could control it, domesticate it, make it their friend. Neville Chamberlain was a classic Biedermann. The German old guard were another. These days the tale lends itself nicely to the cynical machinations of political operatives—some of them running for high office as I write this—who tell us precisely what they'll do, say, to the economy if they get their way, and dare us to believe them. Then, too, there's something awfully familiar about Biedermann's affable comment that he doesn't "believe in class."

Yes, The Arsonists is a great political fable. Yet for all its intriguing resonances and cautionary weight, it doesn't actually work as a play. At least one of two things would have to happen to make Frisch's story dramatically interesting: either the outcome would have to be in doubt or we'd have to feel that the characters' fates mattered. Neither possibility applies here. Biedermann's house will certainly burn, and practically everyone involved is some kind of monster. Hence there's nothing for an audience to do once things get going but admire the wit of the construct. And that only goes so far.

Making absolutely sure that we know we have no one to cheer for, director Victor Quezada-Perez (on loan from France's Cie Umbral theater company) has put the entire cast in clown white and red noses. His staging is often vivid in a archly cartoonish way—as when sleeping characters breathe in and out with their whole bodies, like figures in some old Max Fleischer animation—and the actors offer some marvelous bits of business. John Kahara is fun to watch for the obsessive-compulsive detail in his drag turn as Anna, the Biedermann family maid. David Steiger is somehow both frighteningly and endearingly pathological as Schmitz. And Tiffany Bedwell is oddly compelling at times as the bewildered Mrs. Biedermann. But tedium almost necessarily sets in. With nowhere to go, the show can't help but go nowhere.

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