THE ARSONISTS by Max Frisch, translated by Alistair Beaton, directed by Morris Panych (Canadian Stage). At the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front East). To December 9, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm, Saturday-Sunday 2 pm. $24-$99. 416-368-3110. See listing. Rating: NNNN
How easy it is for evil to insinuate itself into our lives, argues Swiss playwright Max Frisch in The Arsonists. Of course, we're just its unwitting victims.
Or are we?
Part dark comedy and part cautionary tale about how accommodation and silence feed the flame of corruption, the play focuses on Biedermann (Michael Ball), a businessman who's made money from a hair tonic he's created with Knechtling, a man cut out of the company's earnings.
As nasty as he is in the workplace, Biedermann tries to come across as a friendly guy at home. When Schmitz (Dan Chameroy), a fast-talking vagrant, insinuates himself into the Biedermann residence, the industrialist welcomes him and offers an attic room as accommodation. Biedermann does so knowing that unknown arsonists have been using a similar means of entry to torch buildings around town. Still, he wants to be seen as a compassionate fellow who thinks the best of everyone.
Even the arrival of Schmitz's associate, a former waiter named Eisenring (Shawn Wright), and the huge drums of gasoline that the pair store in the attic don't change his mind. All Biedermann can do is invite the pair to a fancy dinner with his wife Babette (Fiona Reid), served by their astute maid, Anna (Sheila McCarthy).
Director Morris Panych's production is a model of elegant excess and cutting satire, with Ken MacDonald's fine design of gingerbread roofs, plastic-covered furniture and rose-covered wall details speaking to the bland comforts favoured by the Biedermanns.
Ball, a splendid Shaw Festival actor we see too rarely in Toronto, captures the right blend of self-importance and obsequiousness, while Chameroy's comic patter is a honeyed seduction, though underneath the pleasant words there's a hint of menace and violence.
Reid's bewildered, distrustful wife, Wright's comically sentimental but manipulative "houseguest" and McCarthy's worldly-wise maid - she wouldn't be out of place in a production of Cabaret - add to the production's sharp tone.
Another strong element is the music of Justin Rutledge, who plays the fire chief, sometime narrator and head of the fire-brigade chorus in this conflagration-prone town. The melodies, including the ballads, have a snarly rock edge, suiting the dark side of the tale's dark side.
But even at 80 minutes, the story feels needlessly stretched out.
All the fine production elements can't gloss over that problem, despite the well-gauged, chilling irony that when Biedermann hears the truth from his guests, he doesn't believe it. The bitter truth not only fails to set us free but blinds us even further to reality.