CHELSEA -- Max Frisch's 1950s play ''The Firebugs" is a fiery denouncement of apathy disguised as tolerance. The TheatreZone production, codirected by Atissa Banuazizi and Danielle Fauteux Jacques, captures the absurdity inherent in this work, while making its concerns utterly contemporary.
The main character, Gottlieb Biedermann, is a hair tonic manufacturer who allows two ne'er-do-wells to settle into his attic at a time when the neighborhood is struggling with incidents of arson. The two arrivals -- the firebugs, a.k.a. arsonists -- openly discuss their fascination with fire, fill Biedermann's attic with gas, and ultimately rely on him to provide the match, literally and figuratively.
Frisch's firebugs are stand-ins for whatever social or political malevolence may face a person or society at a given time. And Biedermann is the befuddled Everyman, confused by the facts before him and unwilling to confront a situation he is actively exacerbating. Frisch wrote the play after World War II, during which he served as a Swiss Army officer. Today, the firebugs could represent terrorists, tax cuts, or other hot topics.
Bill Doscher is well suited to the role of Biedermann, although his panicked tone sometimes doesn't match his refusal to acknowledge the activities taking place under his own roof. Floyd Richardson is a physically daunting Sepp Schmitz, a former wrestler and the first of the firebugs to arrive. Richardson easily switches from gentle giant to hardened criminal in accordance with his manipulations. Things really begin to click when Stephen Libby arrives as Willi Eisenring, the second, more polished firebug. Libby brings an unexpected warmth and instant credibility to the firebugs. He masters an eerie smoothness that makes Willi the colder and crueler of the pair.
Flavia Steiner plays Anna, the exasperated maid, whose strained relationship with Biedermann serves as a comedic resource as well as a window into his unenlightened treatment of people from different classes. Fauteux Jacques plays the uneasy Babette, wife to Biedermann, in conflict with her instincts and her duty to support her husband's decisions.
''The Firebugs" features a chorus of yellow-jacket-clad firefighters who observe, lament, and predict Biedermann's choices through speech and a kind of athletic and urgent stomp dancing. The chorus tends to be more visually than aurally appealing.
The Biedermann home is at the center of a multilevel set; designer Julia Noulin-Merat uses bright red platforms to mark the stage's periphery, with a ladder up to a second level to indicate the attic. There are no curtains to speak of, nor any attempt to disguise the workings of the theater; even the artist responsible for the sound cues is in plain view. It's a fitting look for a production dedicated to exposing human limitations and shining a light on self-delusion.