Opening Nights: The Firebugs

Why we fought World War II.

In case you're not already paranoid enough, Max Frisch's lead-handed morality play has a complacent hair-tonic exec help a trio of arsonists burn down his own home. This after he's given them shelter and food and been resoundingly and repeatedly insulted by his guests. "How can this possibly happen?" you ask. "How can anyone let such craven, contemptuous people into his house and actually hand them the matches?" Well, recall that the play was written in '53, not long after the Swiss writer (1911–1991) had watched madness engulf Europe. In blunt response, The Firebugs is a Brechter-than-Brecht parable of gullibility, appeasement, and denial. It's not that Gottlieb Biedermann doesn't know what arson is or doesn't worry about it; it's just that this haut-bourgeois figure believes he can control such chaos by being kind to dangerous rabble. But good manners count for little as the interlopers consistently announce their history of arson and their intent to burn down the house. "Truth is the best camouflage, because nobody ever believes it," explains one of the creepy firebugs, marked by slurred speech, unctuous manners, and ever-rising demands. These, incredibly, are met by dutiful host Gottlieb (Robert Hinds, whose engaging command anchors a cast of mixed abilities). His more rational wife Babette (Ariel Lauryn) sees through the firebugs' tricks, including flattery ("What lovely damask!) and accusations ("But where are the knife rests?"). But as a demure hausfrau, she lets Mr. B call the shots. Despite such dated elements, it's sur- prising how modern the piece, directed for STAGEright by John Huddlestun on Brendan Mack's tiny three-room set, still feels. Only Frisch's chorus of earnest firemen takes you out of the perverse and timeless story. (Sometimes they observe the action, sometimes they narrate, sometimes they participate.) It's an overdetermined device in an already overdetermined play. But the rest of The Firebugs is studded with sarcasm so sharp as to awaken a slumbering citizenry. When perfidy is laid out so plainly to see, don't be afraid to be afraid.

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