“Peace for our time.” Surely no more infamous words of appeasement were spoken in the history of mankind than those of Neville Chamberlain as he arrived home to London in bogus victory after handing over part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler. Peace eventually came, but not before the Nazi juggernaut shoved six million Jews into its burning maw and left the Continent a wasteland.
The appeasements of cloth-eared statesmen are possible, though, only with the complicity of the people who give them their tin crowns. Such is the message of The Firebugs, Max Frisch’s absurdist play about an arrogant businessman who lets two dubious strangers into his house and then can’t get them out, lest he be seen as their accomplice.
Premiering in Frisch’s native Switzerland in 1958, the play failed in New York and disappeared from view for almost 40 years. Now it’s enjoying a bit of a revival in small theaters across the country. Witness the sturdy production currently being mounted at ZeitGeist, that bastion of culture in the urban wilds of Michigan Avenue.
“Mr. Biedermann,” screams Anna the maid (Lessa Bouchard) as she dusts around the orphic figure of Gottlieb Biedermann (Ryan Carlson), seated at the dining-room table in his prosperous home in an unnamed town. But to no avail. The big man is busy. The newspaper has troubling news; a spate of arson has devastated his neighbors and the police are on the lookout for the culprits, still at large. How can this be? Only the night before, Biedermann had been holding forth at the local lager house, singing the praises of the common man and the milk of human kindness.
A stranger arrives, a towering lummox left homeless by misfortune. Schmitz (James Mio) used to be a wrestler in a circus until it was firebombed. Before that he suffered years of deprivation in an orphanage. Biedermann tries to send him away but the giant will have none of it. He knows his pigeon and sets to work buttering up the fat man as he edges his way to the dining-room table. Before long, Biedermann, his ego well-stroked, invites the lug first to lunch and then to shack up in the attic.
A very bad move, because soon there is another knock at the door. Enter Willi Eisenring (Timothy Campos), an ex-waiter come looking for his pal Schmitz. It quickly becomes clear that Baby Hooey was a Trojan Horse; these two are old pros at their con. Biedermann realizes all too late that he’s been had. After a sleepless night listening to the racket coming from upstairs, he confronts his guests, only to find that they have trundled in barrels of gasoline. While he can keep his skittish trophy wife, Babette (Alana Dauter), in the dark, he has less luck with his own mounting panic.
This is a play that reeks of its day, when ideology was a ham-fisted king, ready to be played like an ace by demagogues and politicos. Absurdist satire is as much about form as it is substance; the medium is indeed the message. Thus the set design by director Eric W. Maher and Troy Richard is suitably sparse, evoking a Teutonic austerity in the dining room and a bohemian potential for mischief in the attic. Were the stage less minimal, the actors would not have the room they needed to invigorate the petting zoo of period stock types that Frisch has given them.
While most of the action in The Firebugs is naturalistic, there are brief interludes when the “fourth wall” is broached, by Biedermann in a fit of pique or a Greek chorus of firemen milling about, awaiting the inevitable. In the director’s notes, Maher confesses that he’s cut and pasted the dialogue from one translation and married it to the chorus odes of another. Nonetheless, the firemen appear far too often for our own good. Who needs their commentary when everything is so relentlessly obvious?
To repeat, like so much of the genre, this is a play that lives and dies by its cast. Were the players any less vital and charismatic, The Firebugs would be every bit the stilted and bloodless pamphlet that it threatens to become every one of its 85 minutes. Carlson boils tirelessly around the spartan stage, cigar and wine glass in hand, bringing the odious Biedermann to full life. As the character is written, he’s merely a snobbish buffoon. Carlson finds the self-doubt in him, the painful knowledge that he isn’t as clever as he would like his wife and guests to think that he is. Even when the author brings on the clumsy device of a ghost of an employee that Biedermann mercilessly sacked, we forgive and forget because Carlson has already brought forth this sense of guilt in a far more subtle, intriguing manner.
Mio plays Schmitz to perfection, first as the cunning doofus and then, with the arrival of Campos, fading into the shadows to lurk as potential muscle. Imagine Andre Agassi if he were to go on a crash diet of foie gras and champagne before becoming a grifter in Provincetown and you begin to have an idea of the spellbinding, slightly effete creature that Campos has wrought from the obvious stiff that Frisch put in the script. Eisenring is the pivotal character in the play — he’s the primary instigator of Biedermann’s sad campaign of appeasement, evoking the Hitler-Chamberlain travesty. And yet, as we are in the late ’50s, he seethes with the sort of class resentment and envy that recalls the specter of communism. If he sneers at Biedermann’s yammering about equality among men, he’s also the first to toast those foolish words with a vintage claret from the joker’s well-stocked cellar … before asking politely for some matches. Mio and Campos, by playing their duet slightly too broadly, underscore the everyman pathos in Carlson’s Biedermann.
With its ventilating dialogue and lumbering allusions, The Firebugs has no right to be as affecting as it is. Yet the youthful vitality of the cast forces the audience to consider the play’s message a somber perennial. How many Biedermanns lurk in Indianapolis? Paris? Baghdad? Kabul? War is not an overnight sensation. It is born slowly of self-importance and self-delusion by millions of people who like to think they know evil when they see it, even if it’s sitting right across the table from them, noshing on a roast goose.
The Firebugs by Max Frisch is at ZeitGeist Gallery and Performance Venue (2661 Michigan Ave., Detroit) through Oct. 12, with Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m., and a Sunday matinee Oct. 6, at 4 p.m. Call 313-965-9192 or see www.zeitgeistdetroit.org.Timothy Dugdale writes about books and culture for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]