By Bernard Shaw; Directed by David Staller
Produced by Gingold Theatrical Group
Off Broadway, Classic Play
Runs through 11.18.23
Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
by Regina Robbins on 11.4.23
Shanel Bailey and Keshav Moodliar in Arms and the Man. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: War and love may not be fair but they're certainly funny in this early work by the brilliant and prolific playwright Bernard Shaw.
Gingold Theatrical Group’s mission to keep burning the flame of Shavian thought continues with a diverting production of Arms and the Man, one of the playwright’s earliest stage works and among his most consistently popular. A perfectly plotted comedy in which the fog of war gives way to the follies of romance, the play has been revived on Broadway seven times since its 1894 debut, but the last of those revivals ran nearly forty years ago (in a production directed by no less than John Malkovich, featuring Kevin Kline and Raul Julia). GTG’s Off-Broadway mounting, though far smaller in scale, also boasts New York stage favorites in the cast; their brilliance, in service of Shaw’s singular theatrical genius, makes this Arms and the Man charming, if not exceptional.
The play begins in wartime: Bulgaria and Serbia are at odds, and Raina Petkoff (Shanel Bailey), the daughter of a bourgeois Bulgarian family, learns that her fiancé has led a cavalry charge against the Serbians, forcing them to retreat. She barely has time to celebrate his success, however, before one of those enemy soldiers, Captain Bluntschli (Keshav Moodliar), climbs up a drainpipe up to her bedroom window and bursts in, gun drawn, threatening to shoot her if she screams.
It turns out Bluntschli isn’t what he initially seems—he’s not even a native Serbian, but a mercenary from Switzerland who doesn’t much care about the politics of the conflict. Raina is repulsed by his prosaic view of warfare but nonetheless feels compelled to help him avoid capture. Both survive the night. Some months later, the war’s over and Raina’s father Paul (Thomas Jay Ryan), and betrothed, Sergius (Ben Davis), return from the battlefield. The lovers’ reunion is rapturous, but the moment Raina is out of sight, Sergius begins flirting with the maid, Louka (Delphi Borich). The return of Captain Bluntschli—through the front door this time—is the final ingredient in this delicious confection, which may appear light and fluffy on the surface but is quite substantial at the core.
In many ways, Arms and the Man is a precursor to the Hollywood rom-com, only much smarter. It makes still-trenchant observations about class conflict, romantic posturing, and self delusion. Raina and her mother, Catherine (Karen Ziemba), cling to their fantasies about love and war, a luxury that their servants, Louka and Nicola (Evan Zes), literally cannot afford. But Shaw never allows any of these characters, however ridiculous, to be truly unlikeable; even Sergius, a hero in Raina’s presence and a scoundrel when alone with Louka, is impossible to despise. “Everything I say is mocked by everything I do,” he despairs, conscious of his own hypocrisy but unable to live up to his lofty ideals. As Raina and Bluntschli, the play’s ostensible leads, Bailey and Moodliar are attractive and engaging, but it’s the veteran members of the cast—Davis, Ryan and Ziemba—who really take the ball and run with it. Their characters feel both laughable and recognizable, plot contrivances and archaic social mores notwithstanding
GTG’s pocket-sized staging is well served by its design team, with Lindsay Genevieve Fuori’s black and white set, looking like a page in a brand-new coloring book, making the hues of Tracy Christensen’s costumes pop. Perhaps inspired by this visual embrace of artifice—certainly thematically appropriate—director David Staller has adopted some artificial embellishments of his own, having his cast address the audience directly at the top of the show and again after the intermission to explain the play’s history and preview what we’re about to see. How this framing device was meant to enhance Shaw’s already superlative and crystal clear writing is anyone’s guess, but it falls flat in practice.
In the current artistic climate, in which the theatrical status quo is being relentlessly interrogated (and rightly so), is it enough to do a play, particularly one as long in the tooth as Arms and the Man, without attempting to reimagine or reframe it? If anyone’s body of work can be said to speak for itself, it’s Shaw’s. Audience members who want more context can look to the author himself, who frequently wrote notes on his own plays upon their publication. Those who don’t will still find themselves challenged by material that was so far ahead of its time that we’re still catching up to it. The comedy smash of 1894 is still quite smashing.
(Arms and the Man plays at Theatre Row's Theatre Two, 410 West 42nd Street, through November 18, 2023. The running time is 1 hour 45 minutes with one intermission. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7; Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $71.50 and are available at bfany.org. For more information visit gingoldgroup.org.)
Arms and the Man is by Bernard Shaw. Directed by David Staller. Set Design by Lindsay Genevieve Fuori. Costume Design by Tracy Christensen. Lighting Design by Jamie Roderick. Sound Design by Julian Evans. Production Stage Manager is April Ann Kline.
The cast is Shanel Bailey, Delphi Borich, Ben Davis, Keshav Moodliar, Thomas Jay Ryan, Evan Zes, and Karen Ziemba.