The Firebugs, Boxer Rebellion Theater. Funny how context changes meaning. When I saw Max Frisch’s 1958 absurdist comedy almost three years ago, it seemed a witty commentary on events that had little to do with my life, perhaps the way eastern Europe capitulated to the Soviets or the upper classes played into the Nazis’ hands. Today, it’s hard to see this play, about a corrupt businessman who inadvertently aids a band of anarchist arsonists, without thinking of terrorism in contemporary America. Director Steven Young plays this up with a slide show at the end featuring multiple shots of the World Trade Center attack. But he needn’t have been so blatant, since the play features a chorus of firemen and a scruffy group of clever, murderous con men who spend their time gathering assorted flammable liquids.
Happily, most of Young’s ideas are much subtler and more effective. His decision to perform the play at a gallop is brilliant: it prevents the work’s darker tones–made even edgier in Michael Feingold’s translation–from overwhelming the comedy. Events that on reflection are horrifying, such as the way the terrorists gain access to the protagonist’s house, when performed up-tempo seem hilarious. And fortunately Young’s cast play the characters, which are well conceived, and not Frisch’s satire, which can seem ham-fisted. Jennifer Willison in particular portrays a stock comic character, the saucy maid, as a real human being and as a result gets laughs no mere stereotype could inspire.