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The Arsonists – Odyssey Theater – Los Angeles Theater Review




picture - The ArsonistsTheater Review

by Harvey Perr 

published April 11, 2010 


The Arsonists

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.


picture - The ArsonistsThe 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.


picture - The ArsonistsWhat 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 @


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