Cable TV news provides the apocalyptic backdrop for Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s jarring new production of “The Arsonists,” a 1950s political warning that hasn’t burned out yet. Two guests from hell drop in on a naive hair tonic salesman named George Betterman, invading his home and threatening to singe the wider social fabric. In the backdrop, we see up-to-the-minute news footage and talking heads on Betterman’s flat-screen TV, as well as the catchphrases of our current torchlit moment — “both sides,” “fire and fury.”
This staging of “The Arsonists” is an unmistakable response to the stunning — and, to many, alarming — Trump electoral victory last fall, and it’s clear why director Michael John Garcés and Woolly Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz decided to stage it almost as soon as the November results were tallied. Max Frisch’s 1958 play, which evolved over nearly a decade and was a response to European countries succumbing to varieties of odious political domination, isn’t an explicit knockoff of a single party, ideology or leader. Its real target is any citizenry that rather lazily doesn’t respond.
The woozy, woolly-headed populace is represented by Betterman, an everyman played by Shalwitz (who will retire at the end of this season) in a rare return to acting. It’s a vivid portrait in Jell-O as Shalwitz shimmies both physically and emotionally, stammering and grinning as Betterman shucks away from responsibility. Betterman badly wants to be liked, first by the hulking brute who shows up hungry at his door, even though the figure, played with maximum intimidation by tall Tim Getman, is obviously a menace.
Frisch’s script, more absurd drama than comedy, will indeed strike you as obvious at times. Of course a play called “The Arsonists” is going to almost literally catch fire, and of course the nebbish Betterman is going to have a hard time snapping to his senses. But to Frisch, obviousness and obliviousness are exactly the point. It’s why he even deploys a Greek-style chorus to call Betterman out.
Garcés’s superb chorus is played by Akeem Davis, Peter Howard, Sue Jin Song, José Joaquín Perez and Emily Townley, and the quintet, moving in stylized slow motion and swapping lines, gets some of the show’s most penetrating passages. Warnings abound; the news is full of stories about “arsonists” who masquerade as ordinary folks at your door needing help, and next thing you know there’s a fire in your attic. The chorus reports, frets and even presses Betterman. Cornered, he blurts, “I have the right not to think anything at all!”
Garcés and designer Misha Kachman get a smart town-square effect by using a thrust stage that juts deep into the audience. The chorus frequently addresses the crowd (so does the gray, desperate Betterman, in one of Shalwitz’s funniest moments), and you never know where in the theater they’ll turn up. The lights by Colin K. Bills even illuminate the outer walls behind the patrons; the performance surrounds you.
Woolly, as led by Shalwitz since 1980, typically rockets beyond realism, and the actors embrace this heightened style. Yet while Getman plays a crude Neanderthal and Kimberly Gilbert chirps merrily as the more sophisticated arsonist Billie Irons (who arrives to nest in Betterman’s attic), the show never careens into mockery. Bahni Turpin, as Betterman’s wife, and Regina Aquino, as their housekeeper, both offer wry, grounded turns, and the chorus maintains a frame of moral perplexity while the news footage applies Betterman’s dilemma to right now. It’s plainly set right here, too; Alistair Beaton’s relatively recent translation is now seasoned with fleeting references to D.C. restaurants.
The two-hour parable flattens a little before the climax, and the “Tom and Jerry” antics with dynamite on that background TV become a bit of a distraction. But the nearly 60-year-old play, a rare choice for the new-works hothouse Woolly, is a reminder of how seldom the rich seams of world drama are deeply mined in Washington. And the stark, high-relief image of an everyman refusing to acknowledge the fuse burning under his nose will probably keep “The Arsonists” glowing in mind long after you’ve seen it.
The Arsonists, by Max Frisch, translated by Alistair Beaton. Directed by Michael John Garcés. Costumes, Ivania Stack; sound design, James Bigbee Garver; video design, Jared Mezzocchi; composer, Chad Clark; choreographer, Stacy Printz. About two hours. Through Oct. 8 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Tickets: $34-$69. Call 202-393-3939 or visit woollymammoth.net.