Daniel Davey Reviews

Theatre Review: ‘The Firebugs – A learning-play without a lesson’ at Niagara University

Why would Gottlieb Biedermann allow arsonists to stay in his attic?   

Because Biedermann, with his eager desire to do good and help seemingly less fortunate souls can’t seem to see into those souls.  He’s philanthropic to a fault, at the edge of noble, the guy who’s accommodating to those less fortunate than his own middle-class self.  He ignores what seem the obvious truths. He’s not an altogether nice guy, but there’s a blind faith-guilt tugging at him that says he needs to be.  

Well intentioned though he is, Biedermann, played by Ashton DeCaro in Niagara University’s production of The Firebugs, possesses all of the needed characteristics of a person who would allow firebugs to live in his attic, and believe that it would turn out well.  He’s a well-meaning sort, and DeCaro touches the simplicities and intricacies of Biedermann in a charmingly flowing, matter-of-fact ease.  

What Biedermann is not is a subversive, yet there’s something engagingly subversive going on in The Firebugs.  With its frequent presence of a chorus of firefighters in the wings, warning us that that there is trouble on the horizon, the play treks forward through Biedermann’s series of bad moves. 

It’s the two would-be arsonists, a former wrestler and a former waiter, played by Tyler Olson and Andrew Salamone respectively, who are the ones bringing all the trouble to Biedermann’s house.  They come off as a pair down on their luck, so Biedermann allows them in. He’s his own worst enemy.  

But the pair of troublemakers have charm.  They’re friendly, worldly in their own ways, and seemingly amiable.  Salamone, plays his waiter/firebug with a captivating wickedness, the zeal of carnival barker with a smoke and mirrors edge.  But more than that, his persona is animated and purposefully funny, and not-so deceptively evil.  

So there’s that space between where you think: I get this, and then: No I don’t.  There’s allegory in that space, the unclear clues, faintly shone at both sides of the space, but not in a definitive this-thing or that-thing sort of light.  The choruses’ leader, played by Marley Judd, gives hints at what’s afoot, and where Beiderman is going wrong, what’s the matter with Biedermann’s decisions, signaling the impending woe.  Judd delivers her lead with the surety of a firefighter captain, knowingly experienced and dramatically convincing, amusingly attempting to warn us of an inescapable conclusion.

But while the answers to Biedermann’s folly might be in there, the play itself is even more animated, purposefully and amusingly unconventional like Biedermann’s actions, while at times surprisingly entertaining in its overall character.  Niagara University’s production aims to capture its playbill subtitle — “A learning-play without a lesson” – and it does so. Having been written in mid 1900’s, its apparent intent was a jab-like statement about a rising middle-class. But if there’s a “lesson” or statement being made, that’s a moving target at best.  The temptation may be to label the play a simple statement to a naïve middle-class to beware the flashy, deceptive hucksters. But that would not be full disclosure.    

As a “learning-play” it fits its billing to a tee, and it’s a success on every level.  It leaves you thinking a bit about its “lesson,” or lack thereof depending on your bent, and so you leave with a feel for the redeeming quality of the experience, and it’s the production itself.  Because what Niagara’s student cast and crew put on display this night was seemingly without troubles, not a single miscue, zero botches of any kind. A learning-play? Perhaps. And perhaps if there were any particular details of delivery or inflection or stage movement, that’s for the students and their instructors to work out.  None could be found from the environs of NU’s Leary Theatre.  

What was found was a dedicated, well-learned and enthusiastic cast and crew at every level.  It’s impressive execution on display — from the choruses’ flawless execution and pitch, to a stage with its pleasingly lit scheme and nicely crafted single set, to a group of both promising and already accomplished actors.  It seems the production could not have been more finely tuned and learned.  

Running Time: 2 Hours with a 15 minute intermission.

“The Firebugs” is almost two hours minutes with its 15 minute intermission. It runs through Monday, October 7.  More information is at https://theatre.niagara.edu/shows/current-shows/show/193