According to its program notes, Woolly Mammoth decided to stage Max Frisch’s The Arsonists (★★★★) after last year’s election results, finding its themes suddenly more relevant than ever. But don’t come expecting anything so obvious as a Trump bashing. Originally written to grapple with the advent of Nazism and Communism in Europe, the play raises questions far bigger than just one election. Indeed, it is a provocative “What would you do?” in which a typical middle-class man is inexorably pinned like a butterfly onto Frisch’s merciless board. Updated in a translation by Alistair Beaton and tweaked by director Michael John Garcés, its questions are urgently here and now.
Set parable-style, we join the tensely bourgeois George Betterman and his wife Becca in the midst of societal chaos. Arsonists are systematically burning down their town and the residents appear to be trapped. Every night, people lock down and wait for the smell of smoke — or the wail of sirens heading elsewhere. That they can’t escape the town (for whatever unexplained reason) allows Frisch to increasingly turn the screw. The world people thought they knew — along with its order, morals and values — is being upended from within. Sound familiar?
But if this all feels like the prelude to something that will turn obvious and preachy, thankfully it is not. Not only is much of the play funny, there is literally never a dull moment. Not just because the plot moves apace, but because Frisch refuses to allow his main characters to be morally simplistic.
Case in point is protagonist Betterman. He is, for want of a better word, a dick. Before the arson attacks he was unpleasant, and the crisis hasn’t changed him a whit. When a stranger arrives at his door and then inveigles his way in, the tension is delicious. Betterman may be being played, but perhaps he deserves it. He is something of a Larry David, wearing on his sleeve what the rest of us have learned to dismantle, suppress or hide.
And as the events unfold, his foibles and the bourgeois life he represents take on a larger significance. If the arsonists (who seek their version of equality) and the firefighters (who seek unquestioning order) suggest opposing political forces and Betterman the selfish, morally-compromised Everyman in the middle, who do we root for? Who should “win” in this ambiguous scenario? As one character tells Betterman, he must either make tough choices or face disaster. It’s impossible not to cogitate the same question long after the play ends: What are today’s tough choices and what would be disaster?
These questions become even more provocative and complex with Garcés’ choice to give the arsonists a somewhat Antifa vibe, the roving firefighters a somewhat robotic affect, and a chorus of regular-seeming folk a “voice” that alternately warns and pleads. The mélange of urgent messaging suggests something all too familiar — the cacophony from that newest of town criers, social media.
Bringing such contemporary reference is no small feat and Garcés also adeptly handles Frisch’s strong penchant for abstraction. Keeping it fast-paced and by turns comical and foreboding, we may not have time to catch every nuance, but neither are we left dangling too long in the Theater of the Absurd.
But none of Garcés’ ideas would work without the energy of his stellar cast. As Betterman, Howard Shalwitz (also Woolly’s Artistic Director) delivers his man pitch-perfect, capturing his bold irritation at the inconvenient needs of others and his calculating cowardice in the face of an alpha. But Shalwitz also sees the music in Betterman, giving his speech the staccato patter of a 1940s film star, while delivering the comedy with a priceless East Coast, neurotic deadpan.
Although the chemistry with Shalwitz’s Betterman is not quite perfect, Tim Getman’s hulking visitor, Joe Smith, nevertheless makes for a powerful, stage-grabbing presence. More importantly, he cleverly captures this character’s complex layers. Smith must suggest everything that is untethered in the world beyond Betterman’s supposedly secure doors. But he must also disrupt. Unlike Betterman’s employee, wife and maid, Smith cannot be managed. Finally, he must inject doubt — how much of what this man says is true and how much is manipulation? Getman weaves these angles brilliantly.
As Billie Irons — another uninvited guest — Kimberly Gilbert gives her woman a wild-eyed, pontificating charisma as she steamrolls Betterman, and she is as unsettling as she is entertaining. There is no question that Irons has a plan and Gilbert suggests with powerful subtlety that it will be ruthless.
Another effective performance comes via Bahni Turpin as Betterman’s wife Becca. Despite her obviously pampered and cloistered life, Turpin gives Becca a subdued but distinct humanity, almost an innocence. Despite her wealth and sophistication, she responds to people without guile and, as a performance, it is deeply appealing. Finally, as the maid Anna, if Regina Aquino sometimes slightly overplays her put-upon skivvy, she delivers a credible counterpoint to the bizarre dynamic between Betterman and Smith.
If the answers are not easy, the questions are thoroughly entertaining.
The Arsonists runs to October 8 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St., NW. Tickets are $20 to $84. Call 202-393-3939 or visit woollymammoth.net.
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