Arms and the Man
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
October 5, 2006
The Pearl Theatre Company's new revival of Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the Pearl has given Shaw's self-described "anti-romantic" comedy a handsome, first-rate physical production: it looks as if no expense has been spared in terms of sets, costumes, or props. And, there is some good acting to be found here (even though it takes a while to show itself—more on that later). On the other hand, though, this Arms features some rote, by-the-numbers direction, and the play itself left me completely nonplussed. What may have seemed charming in 1894 (the year Arms first premiered) now feels staid and predictable. Having successfully guessed the play's resolution within its first 20 minutes or so, I unfortunately left myself little room to care much about the rest of it.
Set in a small town in Bulgaria during the Serbo-Bulgarian War, Arms focuses on Raina Petkoff, an idealistic young woman who comes from one of the richest families in the country. Her father, Major Petkoff, is Bulgaria's highest ranking military officer; her mother, Catherine Petkoff, rules over their house with a strong, entitled hand. And, her fiancée, Major Sergius Saranoff, is off fighting in the war. In fact, Raina is marveling at her intended's reported acts of derring-do as the play begins. Word of Sergius' heroic charge against the Serbs' entrenched position earlier in the day has already reached her house, and the Serbian army is on the run.
Suddenly, in through her bedroom window comes tumbling a Serb soldier, Captain Bluntschli, seeking refuge from enemy gunfire. He's a career military man whose approach to warfare is pragmatic: if you're under attack and can't fight back, you run. When in the field he admits that food, especially chocolate, can sometimes be more valuable than ammunition. But, Raina thinks him a coward. Still, he's charming, and has no intention of hurting her. So, she gives him sanctuary for the better part of an hour before sending him safely on his way.
Once Sergius—a self-important blowhard who isn't brave so much as he's just impulsive and dumb—returns from the war, Raina finds herself in a quandary: Bluntschli is still on her mind. Naturally, it's not long before he's back in her orbit, and Raina finds herself torn between her commitment to Sergius and her confusing feelings for Bluntschli.
I don't know how much Shaw intended Arms to be a comment on war and class, even though he's included plenty of both sentiments. Sergius is written as a walking mockery of mindless, swaggering military bravado—so much so that he's a bit cartoonish. At one point, he cries out, "The dream of patriots and heroes. A fraud! A hollow sham!" Later, when Bluntschli is asked if he is of royal lineage in his native land, he replies that he's one better than that: "I am a free citizen."
Whatever the case may be, Arms comes off as an old-fashioned love story. Raina is not the only character here with a dilemma. Sergius has something going on the side with her servant, Louka, a peasant girl with higher social aspirations. Louka is engaged to the Petkoff's main servant, the much older Nicola, who longs to open his own store in town. Almost everyone here has some romantic problem to solve, but Shaw stacks the deck so that the outcome is never in doubt.
The production boasts a high level of technique, from both the cast and director Gus Kaikkonen. But, good speech and clean, precise direction alone do not a good show make. This Arms, for the most part, lacks the divine spark of inspiration that would make it organic, full-bodied theatre. It isn't until Act III's final scene, when all is revealed and resolved, that the company finally cuts loose and has fun. Bradford Cover, Dominic Cuskern, and Robin Leslie Brown, playing Bluntschli, Major Petkoff, and Catherine, respectively, are the most successful in this regard.
Like I mentioned before, designers Harry Feiner (sets), Stephen Petrilli (lights), and Sam Fleming (costumes) all do a marvelous job. But, for the most part, their efforts are unfortunately just window dressing for a production that never fully comes to life.