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A CurtainUp Review

Arms and the Man
Les Gutman

Roundabout Theatre Company has earned for itself the distinction of being New York's preëminent purveyor of things Shavian. A couple of seasons back it presented Shaw's Misalliance, perhaps his most idea-laden, plotless play. It has been paying penance ever since, it seems, by presenting first You Never Can Tell, a witty but essentially pointless play, and now Arms and the Man. Both fall in a category Shaw called Plays Pleasant. (Links to both reviews can be found below. CurtainUp also reviewed Arms and the Man in the Berkshires a few years ago. That review, also linked below, provides some background and story details that I won't repeat here.) 

We should thank our lucky stars that Shaw was a Socialist. Had he been more inclined to commerce, Arms and the Man, his first success, might have been followed by a string of similarly lightweight comedies that, by now, would be long-forgotten. It is almost pure confection. Not only is there no bitter pill concealed in the comedic sugar, this play doesn't even offer the sharp edge of Shaw's biting wit. Yes, he conveys the idea that the army is not quite as glorious as it's cracked up to be, but saying anything of more than passing importance here is quite incidental. 

There's nothing wrong with that, of course; we see fluffy shows all the time. But when one of the characters declares in the final act, "age is beginning to tell on me," it occurs to me to add, and on the play as well. Set in Bulgaria at the end of a war with Serbia, perhaps the most shocking thing in this play is the casualness with which the playwright considers how un-British Bulgarian sanitary habits are. 

Arms and the Man is not so much satire or farce as spoof and director Roger Rees has staged it as nothing else. Here we are watching American actors sporting various British accents portraying wealthy Bulgarians who are not immediately certain whether an intruder is Serbian or Swiss. Virtually none of the characters is permitted to expand beyond a single dimension (the upwardly-mobile servant, Louka (Robin Weigert), is really the only exception), and nothing Shaw has written is so clever that it can't be trumped by zealous exaggeration. In other words, Shaw's less-than-greatest effort is taken on a wild but ultimately unsatisfying ride.

I am reminded that Arms became the first of only two musicals for which Shaw's plays were responsible: Oskar Straus's operetta, The Chocolate Soldier, of which, for the record, Shaw thoroughly disapproved. (The other, of course, is Pygmalion.) The cast seems caught in the operetta. Or is it an episode of Rocky and Bulwinkle

If Katie Finneran's Raina were in an operetta, we'd have to say she only sings one note. Shaw refers to her voice as "frilly," but she seems to have misread it as shrilly. Although she has a certain endearingly mischievous quality, she seems a strange match for Henry Czerny's earnest Captain Bluntschli. For his part, Czerny is appropriate -- more so than any of his colleagues -- if not engaging or particularly memorable. Paul Michael Valley seems satisfied to render Major Sergius Saranoff, the play's comic centerpiece, as a clown. Even though he has some of the play's richest lines, they are almost lost as he repeatedly leaps over-the-top. 

Raina's parents, Catherine and Major Paul Petkoff (Sandra Shipley and Tom Bloom), fit well into the comic opera mold. Hiding behind his extravagant fake mustache, he's dashingly silly, especially as we follow the paths of a lost-and-found jacket and the found-and-lost picture that was in its pocket. If she can be excused in this context for some shameless mugging, Shipley is otherwise fine. And while the female servant, Louka, is the most successful portrayal of the bunch, her male counterpart, Nicola (Michael Potts), misses his character's target entirely. 

While Kaye Voyce's costumes participate fully in the production's mish-mash (red wooden shoes for Nicola because....???), Neil Patel's set rises above the occasion and finds a perfectly apt way to evoke the Petkoff's Mittel Europa-aspiring home. 

Donald DiNicola suffuses the proceedings with strains of Johann Strauss. Didn't he know British men can't waltz? 

CurtainUp's review of Misalliance 
CurtainUp's review of You Never Can Tell 
CurtainUp review of  a production of Arms and the Man in the Berkshires 

by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Roger Rees

Starring Henry Czerny, Katie Finneran and Paul Michael Valley
With Tom Bloom, Mark Deklin, Michael Potts, Sandra Shipley and Robin Weigert
Set Design: Neil Patel
Lighting Design: Frances Aronson
Costume Design: Kaye Voyce
Sound Design: Donald DiNicola
Running time:  2 hours, 10 minutes with one intermission 
A Roundabout Theatre Company production
Roundabout Website:  
Gramercy Theatre, 127 East 23rd Street (Park/Lexington Avs.) (212) 777-4900
Opened February 10, 2000 Closes April 30, 2000 
Reviewed by Les Gutman 2/13/2000 based on a 2/11/2000 performance

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