Pay no attention to the gas cans. As the incendiary devices pile up in “The Arsonists,” complacency rules.
Max Frisch’s 1958 comic parable is a serious reminder of the consequences of denial, and director Mark Jackson, using an excellent 2007 translation by Alistair Beaton, stages the new Aurora Theatre production for maximum impact. The result is a gripping, and often searingly funny, 90-minute revival of an overlooked 20th century classic.
We never know exactly who the arsonists are. But Biedermann (Dan Hiatt) knows they’re out there. It’s all over the news: they arrive on people’s doorsteps, ask for a bed for the night, then burn down the house.
Still, Biedermann would prefer not to think about it. He’s a businessman, comfortably well-off with a wife, a maid and all the comforts (the set, by Nina Ball, with lighting by Stephanie Buchner, is sleekly mid-century modern).
“Everyone thinks the whole world’s about to go up in flames,” he scoffs, lighting a cigar. And then comes the knock at the door.
The first to arrive is Schmitz (Michael Ray Wisely), an unemployed wrestler who quickly insinuates himself in the household; he’s joined by the waiter Eisenring (Tim Kniffin). Soon the two arsonists have taken over the attic to assemble the device that will blow up the neighborhood.
It’s an absurd situation, but Jackson, one of the Bay Area’s most resourceful directors, makes it visceral, tightening the action until the explosive final coup (Matt Stines’ sound designs contribute mightily.)
The cast, aptly costumed by Christine Crook, is vibrant. Hiatt’s Biedermann is ideal – glib, conciliatory and clueless to the end.
Wisely’s rough-edged Schmitz and Kniffin’s incisive Eisenring are well-matched, and Gwen Loeb creates an exacting portrait of the pampered Babette.
Dina Percia seethes with contained rage as the maid, Anna. Kevin Clarke, Tristan Cunningham and Michael Uy Kelly blend well as a chorus of firefighters.
Frisch’s script, originally written as a radio play titled “The Fire Raisers” (it’s also been performed as “The Firebugs”), explores themes of class, greed and individual responsibility. The playwright, who was Swiss, took his cue from the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948; the Nazis’ rise to power was doubtless on his mind as well.
Yet the beauty of this production is its timeless feel. As directed by Jackson, “The Arsonists” might as well be new.
Where: Aurora Theatre Co., 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes May 12
Tickets: $32 to $50
Contact: (510) 843-4822; www.auroratheatre.org