The Arsonists

Woolly Mammoth takes a bold step… into the past, with its mounting of a play from the mid-20th century. The Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s fable, first presented in 1958 (as Biedermann und die Brandstifter) and in a new translation by Alistair Beaton, is a cry against middle-class complacency when confronted with looming evil. It’s not a particularly subtle work, with a narrative arc that angles straight down. There are Brechtian touches of distancing. Bits of dialogue are repeated, and the language can be rather stilted–cut across with fourth wall-breaking direct addresses to the audience.

Businessman George Betterman (Howard Shalwitz, dusting off his nebbishy) is visited (or invaded?) in his living room by Joe Smith, a down-and-outer, played by Tim Getman. Getman (skinheaded and bushy-bearded) does some strong work here, riding a line of simmering threat and emotional blackmail. Betterman (a bit of a sketchy dealer himself, truth be told) invites Joe under his roof, probably against his better judgement. There is a suspicion, at first just a soupçon, that Joe has something to do with the rash of arson fires that have plagued Betterman’s city. Betterman wants to show compassion, to engage with Joe. But Joe just ramps up the stakes, first bringing his friend Billie Irons (Kimberly Gilbert, all sweetness and sand) into the house without asking, and then rolling in some very ominous looking storage drums. There’s no guile to Joe and Billie: every time they’re asked, they tell you what they’re doing at that particular moment.

The question that Frisch poses to us (nay, flings at us) is simply: at what point do you say no to Joe and Billie? When Joe first walks in the door? When they are asked what’s in the drums, and they flatly reply, “Gasoline”? When, at the play’s culmination, they ask Betterman for a mundane favor that is the key to the final conflagration?

The play’s strength is its weakness. We can read so many different conflicts into it, from freedom fighters vs. fascists of all stripes, to narcissist national leaders who escalate pissing contests into nuclear exchanges.

  • The Arsonists, by Max Frisch, in a new translation by Alistair Beaton, directed by Michael John Garcés, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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