The Arsonists

Photo Source: Ron Sossi
Permissiveness apparently knows no nationality or period. In this production of Max Frisch's now-classic 1958 play (translated by Alistair Beaton), director Ron Sossi has cast actors of various nationalities and given them the bearing (and costumes by Kathryn Poppen) of various classes and periods. When and where are we? In a pack o' trouble of our own making.

Arsonists are taking over the town. Biedermann wants to be a nice guy, doesn't want to hurt the little feelings of the miscreants, and certainly doesn't want to enrage them. So he ignores his powers of observation and lets a pair move into his attic. First is Schmitz, who infiltrates by saying he just wants a little humanity—a statement meaning so many things. Schmitz's cohort Eisenring earns his way in by playing good cop, siding and empathizing with the hosts. Soon Mrs. Biedermann bends over backward to endear herself to the hooligans. Meanwhile, the chorus of firefighters periodically swarms the stage, not only commenting but also putting out a fire in a nifty bit of stagecraft (including clear, elegant sound design by Sean Kozma).

In a beautifully calibrated performance in this swiftly paced piece that often breaks the fourth—and occasionally the third—wall, Norbert Weisser plays Biedermann not as complacent but as timid and nervous. His Biedermann is self-aware, just not willing to make waves, preferring subservience to causing distress to another person. Weisser plays it very honestly, letting the script and costume and situations do the heavy comedy lifting for him. As Schmitz, John Achorn becomes paunchy and ill-kempt, using every wile to inveigle the host's hospitality. Simultaneously, Ron Bottitta brings understated menace to Eisenring while spouting the milk of human kindness. Beth Hogan's hands shake as Mrs. B serves Schmitz quite the breakfast; Hogan plays fearful and cheerful, as her character is bright enough to recognize the problem but not willing to see the difference between paranoia and rational fear.

How will you interpret this tale? Shades of fascism? A changing ethnic landscape? Our children raised with self-esteem? In "The Arsonists," the neighborhood is in flames. And then comes the horrifying line, "At least it's not our house." Until it is.

Presented by KOAN at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. April 3–May 23. Thu.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (Sun., 7 p.m. only, April 4 and 25 and May 23. Added Wed., 8 p.m., May 5–19.) (310) 477-2055.