The play is delightful, the message not so much. Written in 1953 in his native Czechoslovakia, Max Frisch seems to be lampooning blind totalitarianism at the same time he is sticking it to the wealthy who choose to live with their heads in the sand. The issue here -- a businessman who has invited two arsonists into his attic because he is afraid to appear too terribly bourgeois -- is one we can relate to easily. We see what we choose to see, even with our house about to burn down around us.
You have to love the two arsonists -- Tim Kniffin (Eisenring) and Michael Ray Wisely (Schmitz) never pretend to be anyone except who they are. Bottom line: they love burning things up. Schmitz (seen above with Gwen Loeb as Mrs. Biedermann) is also a pathological liar, and he has figured out that his tales of personal woe elicit embarrassed generosity from others, especially Mr. and Mrs. Biedermann.
We know Biedermann (Dan Hiatt) is a bumbling plutocrat, but it takes us awhile to realize he is also guilty of mistreating an ex-employee. Perhaps it is this guilt that causes him to try so hard to appease Schmitz with good cigars, excellent food and accommodations in the very attic that every person in the theater, except for Biedermann, knows Schmitz is planning to burn down.
We love the attic scenes. It is theater of the absurd mixed with a touch of The Simpsons, as Biedermann absolutely refuses to acknowledge what he is staring at with his own eyes. There is an epidemic of arson in the city? You have dragged barrels of gasoline into my attic? No, nothing out of the ordinary here.
The firemen and their (lengthy) unison chanting seem a little strange -- as much absurdist theater from the mid-50s seems to us now. But the message remains strong. If someone tells you they are intent on burning down your house -- they probably will.
RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Arsonists" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The sets, acting and direction (Mark Jackson) earn one star each. Special mention to Dina Percia for her delightfully frustrated Anna. We give the BANGLE to the bad guys -- who doesn't love bad guys who are truly bad? Especially when they have such nice smiles?
The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through May 12