Fire alarm

Fascinating but difficult, The Arsonists heats up the Blue Room

Gottlieb Biederman (Steve Swim), flanked by the arsonists Eisenring (Nick Anderson, left) and Schmitz (Joey Moshiri).

Gottlieb Biederman (Steve Swim), flanked by the arsonists Eisenring (Nick Anderson, left) and Schmitz (Joey Moshiri).

Photo by Joe Hilsee

The Arsonists, now showing at the Blue Room, Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., through Oct. 7.
Tickets: $15
Blue Room Theatre
139 W. First St.

Max Frisch’s The Arsonists, now being staged at the Blue Room Theatre, is hard to pin down. Is it a comedy or a drama? A parable or a slice of realism? A morality tale or a portrait of evil?

That evil takes the form of gangs of arsonists who are randomly setting fires and burning down buildings in the city. Their modus operandi is to insinuate their way into people’s homes, where they carry out their destructive schemes—as two of them do in the home of Gottlieb and Anna Biederman.

Set in an unnamed city in an unnamed country (Frisch himself was Swiss) at an unspecified moment in time (The Arsonists was written in 1948), the play leaves it up to the audience to decide what real-life evil the arsonists represent. Nazism and fascism? Russian communism or post-war anarchism? The atomic bomb, as was suggested by Lindsay Anderson, director of the 1961 Royal Court production?

Or—if we update the list of evils—is it referring to climate change denial, or the Islamic State, or the slaughter in Syria and Iraq? Or the divisiveness and distrust fostered by our new president?

Besides, Frisch seems to be saying, the issue isn’t the evil embodied in the arsonists. They are simply doing what comes naturally because, as one of them exclaims, “We like it!” Some people will resist the evil, but others, such as Gottlieb, will lack the moral focus to do so.

Oh, he puts on a good show—at first. Responding to newspaper reports of arson-set fires in the city, he declaims to his wife that, if he had his way, the firebugs would all be hanged. As a boss he’s callous, even ruthless, but at home he’s a very proper gentleman, attentive to his wife.

This sense of propriety is what does him in. When an unemployed former circus wrestler named Schmitz (Joey Moshiri) appears at his door asking to come in, Gottlieb lacks the resolve to send him packing. And when a second man, a waiter named Eisenring (Nick Anderson), appears, Gottlieb soon realizes that the men are arsonists—they’ve filled the attic with cans of gasoline—but is too fearful to act and instead holds out hope that they will set their fires elsewhere. In other words, he wants to make “a contract with evil, the recognized evil,” as Frisch wrote in a letter to Anderson, the Royal Court director.

The Arsonists is an absurdist play and a fable for all times—just pick your particular evil. But it also presents a rough go for actors, who have little in the way of motive to define their characters.

Gottlieb is especially problematic. In the previously mentioned letter, Frisch notes that Gottlieb starts off as “a heavy and fine bourgeois boss with a very normal self-confidence,” but that after realizing who the arsonists are, “he is full of fear (this has to be shown otherwise he is just an idiot) and a dangerous fellow.”

Unfortunately, Steve Swim doesn’t quite convey Gottlieb’s transition, despite his intensely emotional performance, and I found myself saying “What an idiot!” in response to Gottlieb’s naïveté.

The Arsonists is fascinating and well worth seeing, but ultimately it’s a little too much for the Blue Room, even as directed by the formidable Joe Hilsee. It’s notable that, in his letter to Anderson, Frisch said he’d seen 75 productions of the play, and only three had done it right. I’m not surprised.