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A CurtainUp Review
The Firebugs
Everyone above a certain level of wealth is guilty of something
--- Willie Eisenring, one of two mysteriously ominous strangers who come to the home of an upstanding middle class citizen of an unnamed city of disaster.
(Front) Laurence Luckinbill and (rear left to right) Robert Ierardi, Hollis Huston, Peter James Kelsch
(Photo David Rodgers)
After years of relative neglect, the Swiss novelist and playwright Max Frisch, has had two of his plays about how complacency feeds depravity produced Off-Broadway. Andorra (see our review) was a dark and tragic indictment of his countrymen's less than exemplary behavior during the reign of the Third Reich. While its theme was, unfortunately, as timely as ever, it was too polemical, too long, too static.

The disappointment of Andorra notwithstanding , Frisch clearly was a man who was ahead of his time and since The Firebugs takes a humorous approach to his serious issues and is shorter by half than Andorra, the Colleagues Theatre Company's production demanded to be seen. With Lawrence Luckinbill as Gottlieb (which means God loving in German) Biedermann, the upstanding, prosperous businessman at the center of this literally incendiary story about a town whose tranquility is threatened by arsonists or fire bugs, perhaps this time Frisch's words, as translated by Michael Bullock, would catch fire.

There is indeed a fire -- something anyone who has visited this compact theater can attest to as being quite a feat of staging, but there's another kind of fire that's missing. What I'm talking about are the sparks that ignite when a play comes magically alive in its transfer from page to stage. Luckinbill gives an energetic performance and he is solidly supported by Herbert Rubens and Don Amendolia as Sepp Schmitz and Willi Eisenring. These are the title characters, the seemingly genial but obviously ill-intentioned visitors who, once admitted to the Biedermann home, can't be dislodged.

The play's message is worthy but its allegorical style is oddly static and the black humor fails to wrest much laughter from the audience. The issues of condoning and abetting injustice are difficult to dramatize without overdoing the polemics, and as evident from Joe Gifrasi's direction, balancing the symbolic and realistic elements has proved even more challenging.

There's also the use of a Greek chorus made up of fire fighters. This has all the earmarks of Brechtian cutting edge but, given the delivery of this chorus, the edge has a decidedly dull edge. The firemen who appear intermittently at the side of the stage, sound like a group of carefully rehearsed but awkward students at a class assembly. Instead of serving as a bridge between the real and the allegorical, they actually have the effect of bringing things to a full stop. The same is true of the director's attempt to connect players and audience by having Luckenbill break the fourth wall and take the audience into his confidence.

The liveliest moments occur when Sepp brazenly expands Biedermann's grudging hospitality and, of course, the fire that leaves Biedermann and his wife Babette (Ruby Holbrook) dead. Biederman insists he is in heaven because he abided by all the thou shalt nots, jokingly declaring "I never coveted my neighbor's house-- and if I did I bought it."

Whether the production's flaws rest with the playwright's way of telling it or the direction (probably a combination of both), Frisch deserves credit for not soft-pedaling his depressing conclusion. Biedermann escapes Hell but only temporarily. He may rejoice that his disaster struck city has been built up again but, as he has survived, so has the Devil, a.k.a. the firbebugs!

Written by Max Frisch
Directed by Grifasi.
Cast: Sstarring Laurence Luckinbill, with Don Amendolia, Shannon Emerick, Ruby Holbrook, Robert Ieraldi, Michael Lipton, and Emily Mitchell. Also Drew Donovan, Hollis Huston, Peter James Kelsch, Nate Lombardi and John Mishalski as The Firemen.
Set Design: Cyrus E. Newitt
Costume Design: Karin Beatty
Lighting Design: Jeff Fontaine.
Sound Design: David Gilman,
Running time: 90 minutes with intermission
The Neighborhood Playhouse, 340 East 54th Street (1st/ 2nd Avenues), 212/ 369-0799
Wed-Sat at 8 PM with matinees Sat and Sun at 3 pm. Special benefit perf on Tuesday, June 25 at 8 pm. --$19, also accept TDF Vouchers.

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on June 8th performance.
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