Gottlieb (Max Hartmann) is an unscrupulous businessman in such denial, he doesn’t worry a bit that a key employe he cheated out of a future committed suicide because of the betrayal. He’s happily removed from the realities of how hard life is for the 99 percenters, clucking his tongue that a group of arsonists appear to be targeting the wealthy. How do his peers allow themselves to be so deceived by criminals?
Until one day, Joseph (Jason Kane), a brutish thug, shows up on his doorstep with a ludicrous sob story and, via intimidation and guilt, wheedles his way into Gottlieb’s life to plan yet another act of terrorism … just for the hell of it, apparently.
The late Swiss intellectual Max Frisch made his rep as a playwright 60 years ago with The Arsonists, but this newish translation — getting its regional premiere from Kitchen Dog Theater — gives ample legroom for theater companies to make of it as they wish. In KDT’s case, they’ve turned it into a vaudeville — a farce of the mind that relies on stabs of original music, word play and subtle psychology to burrow under your skin about the nature of society and man’s capacity for self-deception: “They can’t be arsonists — they don’t have matches,” Gottlieb reasons before turning over his Zippo to a scary crew of villains (which now also includes Michael Fererico, who has perfected the art of turning whiny nebbishes into intense comic foils).
This is prime real estate for director Tim Johnson to trod over, combining his affection for absurdism with dark insights into the psyche that can be arresting between blurts of laughter. The cast is top-notch, including Jenny Ledel as a passive-aggressive maid whose frustration with her employer mirrors the audience’s … and her inability to show him the light reminds us that sometimes, mankind is simply beyond helping itself.
Now playing through Dec. 13. KitchenDogTheater.org.