By: Samuel L. Leiter
November 4, 2023: Pity the poor critic who sees a show after it opens and already has been reviewed by others, even if he or she hasn’t read their notices. This belated critic may dislike the production so much they can’t wait for the final curtain so they can slink out undetected. Then, as soon as opportunity allows and before they’ve put fingers to keyboard, they survey the reviews to see if they’ve got company, only to discover the show’s a critical hit, everyone’s given it raves (so far), and they’re the only sourpuss around (so far). It’s not a happy feeling; misery loves company.
Such was my experience at George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, directed at Theatre Row by New York’s resident Shawmeister, David Staller, whose Gingold Theatrical Company (named for his godmother, Hermione) has been providing generally respectable Off-Broadway GBS revivals and programs for 18 years.
Arms and the Man, which premiered in London in 1894,is frequently revived, if not necessarily in New York. Its still pertinent satire of war, heroism, and the glorious traditions of soldiery, its brevity (this production runs two hours), its limited cast (one onstage only briefly), its conventional but appealing romantic complications, and its charming comic spirit make it eminently practicable, especially for college theatres. It does, however, require a difficult blend of good casting, masterful acting, insightful direction, and clever design to pull off successfully.
In the current revival the first thing we see, as buoyant period music plays (sound design: Julian Evans), is Lindsay Fuori’s lightheartedly artificial white set, festooned with cartoony designs and figures. It provides a delightfully tasteful Victorian-era bedroom for the Bulgarian heroine, Raina Petkoff (Shanel Bailey), even though its extremely simple furnishings and features (balcony doors instead of shutters, for example) bely Shaw’s detailed requirements, intended as much for the reader as the decorator.
Fuori’s set, however, is created to serve, with only slight rearrangements of the furnishings, as an unchanging unit for the entire play. The Act 2 garden scene lacks even a touch of greenery to provide some color and atmosphere, while Act 3, which Shaw sets in the Petkoffs’ shabby, poorly stocked “library,” remains the same garden setting. Budgetary concerns might argue for such a simplified approach, but one wishes some cleverer concept might have allowed for more visual variety from one act to the other. Jamie Roderick’s generally bright lighting is acceptable but a few faces are, if only briefly, occasionally underlit down left.
Also missing, as it is in Tracy Christensen’s costumes for the servants Louka (Delphi Borich) and Nicola (Evan Zes), is any suggestion of Bulgarian culture. Otherwise, the costumes are pleasantly generalized Victorian, the only notably Continental contributions being the olive-colored uniforms of Major Sergius Saranoff (Ben Davis) and Major Paul Petkoff (Thomas Jay Ryan).
Without going into unnecessary detail, we can say of the plot that during a brief 1885 war between Serbia and Bulgaria, a Swiss mercenary named Bluntschli (Keshav Moodliar), fighting for the Serbs, escapes the enemy’s guns by hiding out in the bedroom of Raina, daughter of the Bulgarian officer, Petkoff, and his social climbing wife, Catherine (Karen Ziemba).
Enraptured by the heroics she ascribes to her fiancé, the handsome officer Sergius, Raina is distraught to encounter in Bluntschli someone who not only discounts her Byronic image of military heroism and nobility, but bursts any bubbles she may envision regarding Sergius’s prowess. Bluntschli is so down to earth about the realities of warfare that, instead of cartridges, he carries with him chocolate creams (thus the inspiration for Straus’s operetta The Chocolate Soldier)for sustenance when things get really rough.
Shaw’s satire on the ignobility of war actually is secondary to its working out, in conventional 19th-century style, the romantic relationships involving Raina, Sergius, and Bluntschli, as well as those of Louka and Nicola. But it prepared the way for such devastating condemnations of traditions regarding war’s glory as Wilfred Owen’s World War I poem, “Dulce et Decorum est” (“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”).
Given the play’s emphasis on the rom-com and family episodes, in which, not only antiwar notions but issues of class and feminism are expressed with Shavian wit—minus the playwright’s later tendency to bloviate—Staller takes a playful attitude toward the text, accepting its innate theatricality and inflating it like a Thanksgiving parade balloon. The result casts a teeth-gritting pall of preciosity over everything.
For example, Staller has the actors address the audience directly by delivering his own mawkishly cute versions of the stage directions. He also has the actors play their roles more as attitudes than as humans, with lots of posing, mugging, walking away while responding to others so they can share their facial reactions with us, and so forth.
The staging not only lacks inventiveness, it sometimes makes no sense. When Sergius, alone with Nicola, wants some privacy with her on the empty stage should someone wander in, he takes her down left center, one of the most obvious places on stage, instead of to a corner where they might more convincingly suggest an attempt at hiding from view.
Shaw’s words have been seriously nipped, tucked, and frequently altered. Considering what’s happening in Israel and Gaza, it’s sad to see certain lines cut, like Raina’s complaint to her mother, “I wish our people were not so cruel. What glory is there in killing fugitives?” Further, there are even interpolations of new, joke-seeking material. One, for instance, involves a heavily accented Russian officer’s recital of his lengthy name; another declares that the family library, about which the Petkoffs are so proud, has only a dozen books, a wisecrack cited in several reviews as if Shaw wrote it.
Several fine actors are involved, among them musical comedy star Karen Ziemba who, as the ambitious grand dame Catherine, comes closest to carrying off her responsibilities with aplomb. Thomas Jay Ryan as the foolishly blustering Petkoff has his moments but raises too few chuckles. Keshav Moodliar’s Bluntschli lacks the natural charm stemming from the man’s businesslike pragmatism, while Ben Davis captures the outlines of Sergius’s narcissism but fails to go much deeper. Evan Zes’s Nicola has the right insouciance but, like Shanel Bailey’s Raina and Delphi Borich’s Louka, can’t stop indicating his intentions. Whether miscasting is at fault is hard to say, but, at least in several instances, the overall directorial approach fails to elicit anything more than superficiality in the acting.
With too few New York companies paying attention to Shaw’s works, it’s a shame those we get to see are rarely on a level with his writing. This is especially true when a director’s predilections take precedence over the text, even one so seemingly accessible as Arms and the Man. Then again, judging by the bravos of my colleagues, maybe I’m just a sourpuss who doesn’t get it.
Arms and the Man **
410 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through November 18, 2023
Photography: Carol Rosegg