With “The Firebugs,” the Yale Cabaret manages to stage a lackluster production of a potentially lustrous play. In a city terrorized by arsonists, a well-to-do man allows an eccentric vagrant to spend the night in his attic. Said attic soon contains gasoline, fuses and another mysterious man, forcing the homeowner to decide how to deal with his guests. The ensuing conflict is supposed to lay bare the organic weaknesses of liberal Western culture. In the hands of the Cabaret, unfortunately, it is warped to make tired points about the fears of modern American society.
“The Firebugs” was penned by Swiss playwright Max Frisch. Written in the ’50s, the play ostensibly serves as an allegory for the political ascent of the National Socialists. The script, however, contains a motley slew of references, calling to mind virtually every extremist movement in modern German history, from 1848 to the Spartacists.
Staging this unwieldy work might at least provide an insight into the troubled history of the volk, but this is not the path the Cabaret has chosen. Unfazed by the metaphorical mash-up already inherent in the script, this production tosses in vague references to McCarthyism, Northern Ireland and the war on terror. The result is a production that loses itself in a mire of cultural touchstones. Rarely does it allow Frisch’s elemental misgivings about a free society — which are, in fact, the core of the play — to come through.
What passes for symbolism in this show is sometimes so ham-fisted as to be unbearable. The characters offer no surprises, only plodding progress toward a predictable reckoning. One soliloquy towards the end leaves the audience wondering whether the cast could have possibly made their point in a more awkward manner. Despite the potential of Frisch’s play, this production comes off as less of an incisive look at society and more of a “Baby’s First Ibsen.”
The timeliness of the production would seem indisputable. The contemporary message is simple: just as German elites welcomed the Nazis, perhaps our own leaders have naively exposed us to the threat of terror. While the action is easily modified to suggest the security fears of today, however, the underlying themes of the play do not map very well from post-11/11 Germany to post-9/11 America. The show has a few moments of brilliance, such as deliberately obscuring the nationality of the terrorists. However, “The Firebugs” fails to achieve the high standard of creative interpretation set by previous Cabaret shows.
In terms of acting, the performances are average, with the notable exceptions of Jeffrey Rogers DRA ’07 (The Fireman) and Joe Gallagher DRA ’07 (Willi Eisenring). Rogers, who serves as both director and one-man chorus, imbues the production with the appropriate sense of impending apocalypse. Gallagher also turns in an admirable performance, masterfully intertwining menace and charm in his portrayal of a terrorist.
Thanks to the restrictions of the production space, the show is predictably limited in its staging. The opening and closing scenes cleverly turn the cramped atmosphere to surprising advantage, clearly communicating the paranoia and claustrophobia of the protagonists. However, while enjoyable to watch, the production values fail to salve the show’s basic thematic weaknesses.
“The Firebugs” may not be terribly good, but it is also not terribly representative of what the Cabaret is capable of. Considering the quality of the plays they usually stage, they can be forgiven a hiccup every now and then.