The Arsonists – Odyssey Theater – Los Angeles Theater Review
FIREMEN, SAVE MY WORLD
by Harvey Perr
published April 11, 2010
now playing in Los Angeles at the Odyssey Theater
through May 23
If the nightmarish elements in Ron Sossi’s production of Max Frisch’s The Arsonists were any sharper or
clearer, the audience – having been awakened from its complacency – would rise, at its curtain, en masse, and rush into the streets to warn
anyone within earshot that it can indeed happen here. For what, in 1958 – when the play was known as The Firebugs (a far better title, being both scarier and more weirdly comic) – was a parable about how
the “good” Germans sat by as the Nazis took over, it is, in 2010, a warning to the historically illiterate that if we sit by in apathy as
the Tea Partiers, for example, carefully plant their kindling before setting our own world on fire, we have only ourselves to blame.
Instead, the audience rises and merely applauds. Of course, it applauds with good reason: they have sat through one of the funniest and
most marvelously acted plays in town.
The story of Biedermann (literally ‘honest man,’ but, more colloquially, ‘petit bourgeois’) – whose
home is progressively besieged by a couple of thugs who don’t even pretend to hide their nasty intent to engulf the Biedermann house in
flames – and his crazed efforts to stop the conflagration, is, after all, satire, and Sossi is absolutely right to locate the slapstick
inside the tragedy. And, from the moment the Greek chorus of yellow-jacketed and bright
red-helmeted firemen keep trying to douse the matches with which Biedermann frantically tries to light his cigarette to the final image of
the hysterically frightened Biedermann sitting alone amidst the chaos he has been complicit in creating, we do not sit there, in terror or
even suspense, but, instead, we sit there laughing at just how nutty things can get when people simply do not know what to do when their
world is falling apart in front of them. In this case, laughter may be our best defense against horror. The horror is omnipresent, but, as
the boat sinks, we keep it afloat, rocking it with our roars one minute, our titters the next.
Sossi is aided and abetted by a wonderful crew of actors who seem to be having a grand time letting rip with
behavioral tics that blossom into fully-drawn characters. Norbert Weisser, tightly wound and constantly wired to a loose circuit, is a
pitch-perfect Biedermann. Beth Hogan, as his somewhat insecure wife, brings a touching reality to the proceedings. In the role of the maid
who is having the most hilariously uninteresting affair with her boss that could be imagined, Diana Cignoni turns the German language into
delicious nonsense. But it is John Achorn, as the baleful slob Schmidt, and Ron Bottita, as the no-nonsense ex-con Eisenring (who, for
reasons all his own, speaks a broad swath of working class British which always raises the laugh meter), who bring the play’s odd mixture
of the serious and the comic to heights of perverse profanity. Just watching Achorn eat or
Bottita go about the business of attaching wires to oil barrels is what going to the theater
is sometimes all about.
What Sossi has created here, with the superb assistance of his technical collaborators, is the look
and feel of a grim East-European film of the 60s, with just the right touch of Keystone Kops madness, in the way those fluttering firemen
dance around the edges of the Biedermann home.
It is fascinating that two Swiss dramatists – Frisch and Duerrenmatt – who were neutral during World War II, were
able to recognize, with such clarity of vision, what was happening in the country next to theirs, while that country went down in flames.
If The Arsonists serves as an example, Frisch’s vision is still vivid and valuable. Maybe the time has come for a revival of Duerrenmatt’s The Visit in a translation that
adheres more closely to the original play, and perhaps Alistair Beaton, whose translation is part of what is so good about The
Arsonists, could do the job. In the meantime, a visit to the Odyssey Theatre should be considered by anyone who takes theater seriously
and still likes to have a good time.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com