Howard Shalwitz and Kimberly Gilbert in The Arsonists, directed by Michael John Garcés, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre.
Howard Shalwitz and Kimberly Gilbert in The Arsonists, directed by Michael John Garcés, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre.
(© Scott Suchman)

Swiss playwright Max Frisch wrote The Arsonists in 1958 as a response to the 1948 Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia, but the play is often seen as a metaphor for Nazism and fascism taking hold in societies when apparently no one is looking. Despite its age, this play — in a 2007 translation by Alistair Beaton — exudes an air of contemporary relevance in a vigorous production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, the first show of Woolly's 38th season.

The play's main character, George Betterman, is a respected businessman with a wife, Becca, and a comfortable home. He is the epitome of a conventional bourgeois gentleman. When rumors of arsonists in the countryside begin to surface, Betterman convinces himself that the normalcy of his life will protect him. Evil arsonists may be going door to door, talking their way into people's homes only to plot the destruction of those houses, but surely these men won't fool him, Betterman thinks.

Yet when a homeless man named Joe Smith shows up at his house with a sob story about how hungry he is, Betterman instructs his maid, Anna, to feed him. Later, Betterman lets Smith sleep in his attic. The next morning, Becca assures her husband that she will get rid of Smith.

But Smith not only doesn't leave; he sneaks a female friend, Billie Irons, into Betterman's house. Billie helps Joe smuggle gasoline drums into the attic, as well as a fuse, detonator, and several guns. A trusting man, Betterman tries to find excuses for why the pair might need the drums.

A chorus of five people dressed as firefighters warns Betterman from the start that he should be on his guard. The plot grows increasingly absurd until Betterman, his wife, and their maid offer the arsonists a feast in order to keep them from lighting a fire.

Howard Shalwitz is excellent as Betterman, showing the depth of his character's hypocrisy and indecision at every turn. Shalwitz's Betterman wants desperately to have a sense of propriety and peace, yet his hands shake horribly even in the first moments of the play, revealing his interior trepidation. Bahni Turpin is a good foil for Shalwitz as Becca. She is happily superficial, so involved with her shopping routine that she lets herself feel sorry for the hapless Smith.

Tim Getman portrays Smith as at times domineering, at times subservient. He knows he is challenged when it comes to etiquette and keeps punching himself in the head to reset his manners. Getman plays Smith as a giddy combination of black humor and hulking creepiness. Kimberly Gilbert plays Smith's partner-in-crime, Billie, as a saucy, overtly sexy puppeteer manipulating him. It is Billie who gets Betterman to measure the fuse for her, wrapping it around his hands as if she were preparing a length of yarn for knitting.

Regina Aquino plays Anna almost as a solitary observer. She sees what is happening in the Betterman house but is helpless to convince her employer to stop it. The chorus, consisting of Akeem Davis, Peter Howard, José Joaquín Perez, Sue Jin Song, and Emily Townley, is an essential part of the production, giving it a timeless feel. Director Michael John Garcés keeps the play moving quickly, emphasizing its humor.

Misha Kachman's set consists of corrugated tin walls against the back of the stage with stairs on stage right leading to the attic. A large television is mounted on the stage's back wall, with an armchair in front of it. Video designer Jared Mezzocchi creates a continuous loop of up-to-date news stories. Ivania Stack dresses the actors in character-appropriate attire: Betterman in a rumpled suit and tie; Becca in high-fashion outfits; Billie as a waiter; the chorus in street clothes in shades of red, then in firefighters' coats. The end of The Arsonists is a superb conflagration provided by lighting designer Colin K. Bills and sound designer James Bigbee Garver.

This incendiary morality play speaks to greed, corruption, and apathy in all contexts and at any time evil is ignored and allowed to flourish. It attacks self-satisfaction and entitlement as fiercely as it does malevolence. Max Frisch died in 1991, but this play is so fresh, it seems as if he might have written it just a few short months ago.