The Firebugs, a play in one act by Max Frisch (1911-1991)
Running time 95 minutes
Presented by TheatreZone, the Chelsea Theater Works, 617-887-2336
189 Winnisimmet Street, Chelsea, MA 02150
December 8-23, Thurs.-Sat. 8:00, Sun. 3:00
Boston’s equivalent of “Off, Off Broadway” is probably Chelsea, where TheatreZone established a beachhead in 1999 by purchasing the historic Post Office/Oddfellows Hall in Chelsea Square. Located on the second floor, the theater space is another of the small gems of space devoted to the burgeoning local theater scene. Five rows of 15 comfortable seats are tiered to ensure no bad view in this modestly sized venue.
Navigating to the theater is a performance piece all by itself as it takes the playgoer from Boston through the ever-changing lane configurations to the Tobin Bridge. One lapse in concentration can easily put the driver on the road to New Hampshire, so pay attention. Once over the bridge, homing in on the theater is a piece of cake and on-street parking easy to find. At $12 -$18 a ticket, the price is right even if you do get lost or the show isn’t up to snuff.
Swiss playwright Max Frisch was consumed by the question of the passive complicity many Europeans showed as they turned a blind eye to the horrors of WW II. In his 1950s play “The Firebugs", Frisch explores the consequences of a failure to act when two seemingly homeless men ingratiate themselves into the home of a successful middle class hair tonic salesman and his wife.
Seeing and hearing what should serve as hair raising signals that the pair are the arsonists that have been plaguing the town, the salesman, who can connive to sell a phony product to gullible buyers, ironically refuses to acknowledge the truth when the pyromaniacal twosome talk openly about their plan to incinerate his home next in their fiery spree. The salesman is in the same self-delusional boat as his hair tonic customers: they’re all hoping for a miracle to trump reality.
Frisch uses a morality play format in which yellow-jacketed firemen standing around the edges of the set act as a “chorus” and sound warnings that the middle class blowhard salesman cannot bring himself to believe. He’d rather protect himself by trying to make friends with the evil doers (collusion?) than report them to the police; his foolish strategy has deadly consequences. Frisch undoubtedly remembered the “appeasement” used to tolerate Germany’s bellicose intentions in the late 1930s.
The two “firebugs” are played with just the right amount of gleeful camp to keep them credible but pathologically dangerous. The play’s scenes of comic relief between the salesman and his maid unmask the pompous salesman’s elitist behavior and represent another axe Frisch grinds during the play.
The “chorus” of firemen is a distraction. It seems too dated and states what we can already infer from the characters. The three-level see-through set cleverly shows the salesman’s parlor and attic where most of the action occurs. The lighting is effective. The sound effects are imaginatively done by a man in full view in the far corner of the set.
The play doesn’t break new ground but does put a hot poker to our consciences. How do we respond to the realities of our times? What consequences do we pay if we remain passive in the face of social inequities, intolerance, or even the vexing tangle of emotions and laws as we respond to threats of terrorism?
In playwright Frisch’s mind, action won’t necessarily result in success but inaction will certainly be doomed to failure. In today’s climate of social and political flux, we have chances every day to take a position on whatever side of the divide on which we stand. To remain silent is to play with fire.
For information about TheatreZone, and a set of directions that should prevent you from heading to New Hampshire, visit https://www.theatrezone.org/