An arsonist is an artist of obliteration; a wizard at turning matter to energy, and then dissipating the energy until it is nothing. Where before the arsonist came there was a home, a painting, a library, a community, afterward there was only ashes, and a receding warmth. The greatest and most memorable arsonists — Hitler, say, or the Taliban — burn up not only material things but the very things that make us human: our compassion, our self-restraint. our reason. Arson is the ultimate way to drain the swamp.
But The Arsonists is not about the arsonists. It is about the rest of us, and how we come to let them into our homes and our lives. Consider George Betterman (Howard Shalwitz), who, if not a righteous man, is at least self-righteous.
Home after work, trembling in rage and fear as he watches the day’s horrible calamities play out on his television (amusingly, video designer Jared Mezzocchi uses nothing more than recent NBC Nightly News broadcasts), Betterman rails against the fools who let arsonists into their homes, telling themselves they are giving shelter to the unlucky poor when they are in fact providing the arsonists with a base of operations. Then there is a knock on the door.
Brothers and sisters, I think you know this story, but Max Frisch, the playwright, knew it even better because he lived in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. The arsonist (Tim Getman) is a large, fierce, powerful man named Joseph Smith who wears his low estate as a sword and a shield. He is homeless, and full of grievance. He seeks shelter from the rain, and surely Betterman, a better man than his fellows, can give it to him. And Betterman immediately begins to appease — offering a cigar, a loaf of bread, some wine. Smith accepts — with seeming gratitude, but soon he has wheedled some cheese and mustard to go with the bread. He drinks Betterman’s wine, as well as his own, and flicks his ashes on Betterman’s floor.
Betterman cannot tolerate the thought that an arsonist has forced his way into his house, so he denies what is happening in the face of all evidence. When Smith and his uninvited co-tenant, Billie Irons (Kimberly Gilbert) begin to carry large barrels of gasoline into the attic, it becomes pretty hard to ignore their intentions, but Betterman is equal to the task. He browbeats his terrified wife (Bahni Turpin) and despair-drenched servant (Regina Aquino) into going along with his lunatic submission. The results — well, you know the results.
The Arsonists is full of moral and social observations, of which the foregoing is only the principal one. The play has a whiff of Brecht to it; Frisch employs a chorus of firefighters (Akeem Davis, Peter Howard, Sue Jin Song, José Joaquin Perez, and Emily Townley) to drive home his points, which they do at the expense of actually fighting fires. (Howard also plays a longwinded academic, who abandons his allegiance to the arsonists in order to make an ineffectual speech against them). Even in this new translation by Alistair Beaton, the dialogue occasionally seems forced, notwithstanding fine performances.
But this is the play’s only shortcoming, and Woolly Mammoth’s production does Frisch’s work full justice. Director Michael John Garcés, a Woolly company member who is also Artistic Director of Los Angeles’ Cornerstone Theater Company, takes full advantage of the Woolly space. Misha Kachman’s beautiful set immediately establishes who the Bettermans are (rich people, with expensive tastes), and Garcés positions his chorus throughout the theater, including its second and third levels, to maximize their effect.
The Arsonists is a witty play, but it requires a witty production to make it so. Woolly’s is, largely because Shalwitz sells Betterman’s primary characteristic — an utter lack of self-awareness — so well. This obliviousness reaches its apotheosis when Betterman earnestly explains to Irons that we now live in a class-free society while treating his servant like a draft horse, but Shalwitz has established it long before.
And The Arsonists breaches the fourth wall effectively as well. When Betterman turns to the audience toward the end of the play and asks “in my place, what would you have done?” an audience member surprised me by shouting out, “not let him into the house!” (“I’ve gotta run,” Shalwitz responded immediately, perfectly in character.)
Shalwitz, Woolly Mammoth’s Artistic Director, doesn’t act very often any more, but his skills in that art remain fresh, focused and funny. The usual suspects — Townley, Gilbert, Aquino et al, do the fine work we’ve come to expect of them. But the breakout performance in this production is Tim Getman’s. A large, athletic man (at one point he grabs an overhead girder and hoists himself up against the ceiling), he perfectly captures the threat and cunning of the bully. Moving with assurance into the physical and emotional space of the other characters, ratcheting up tension with both gesture and silence, exploding in ersatz pain and daring others to discount it, deflating fear temporarily with a soft word, knowing that at any moment he has the power to increase it tenfold, Getman’s Joe Smith is a template for human evil in the modern world.
“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” Edmund Burke once observed. In The Arsonists, Frisch takes a step further, to show that doing nothing requires complicity and self-deception. Thank heavens there’s nothing like that going on now, eh?
The Arsonists by Max Frisch, translated by Alistair Beaton. Directed by Michael John Garcés . Choreography by Stacey Printz . Featuring Howard Shalwitz, Regina Aquino, Tim Getman, Bahni Turpin, Kimberly Gilbert, Akeem Davis, Peter Howard, Sue Jin Song, José Joaquin Perez, and Emily Townley. Set design by Misha Kachman . Costume design by Ivana Stack . Lighting design by Colin K. Bills . Sound design by James Bigbee Garver . Video design by Jared Mezzocchi . Dramaturgy by Kirsten Bowen . Marne Anderson, assisted by Leigh Robinette, was the stage manager . Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.