Arms and the Man
Theatre Review by Howard Miller – October 26, 2023
Gingold Theatrical Group’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s 1894 comedy Arms and the Man, opening tonight at Theatre Row, is light as a feather and delectable as a piece of chocolate cream candy. And you needn’t be concerned about getting home in time to tuck in the kids for the night because, as one of the cast members tells us by way of introduction, “don’t worry; it’s Shaw but it’s short,” with a runtime of two hours, including brief breaks for “jovial conversation” and “affable socializing.”
David Staller, founding artistic director of the Shaw-centric company named for his godmother, the actress Hermione Gingold, brings us the theatrical equivalent of an outing to a small town park from back when strolling families ate cotton candy and drank lemonade while the band performed the kind of music that greets us as we take our seats: cakewalks and ragtime and march tunes that nicely complement Lindsay Genevieve Fuori’s soft and warm set design.
Arms and the Man is an early Shaw work, his fourth of 65 plays he would write. It is a beguiling bit of fluff, a romantic comedy with just a tinge of satire about the ludicrousness of war and the foibles of the supercilious upper classes. It opens on the play’s only serious note, with the sounds of battle encroaching on the home of a wealthy and self-important Bulgarian family: Major Petkoff (Thomas Jay Ryan), his social climbing wife Catherine (Karen Ziemba), and their daughter Raina (Shanel Bailey).
The setting is the bedroom of Raina. Suddenly, through the French doors leading to the balcony, in bursts a disheveled soldier seeking protection from the shooting. It is a young Swiss mercenary, one Captain Bluntschli (Keshav Moodliar), who, by unfortunate circumstance, had chosen to join the wrong side of the short-lived battle between the victorious Bulgarians and their occasional enemy, the Serbs. Although he waves a pistol in Raina’s general direction, she takes pity on him and offers to hide him until he can get away. Never mind that Raina is engaged to be married to a Bulgarian officer, the swaggering Major Sergius Saranoff (Ben Davis); her romantic notions readily overcome her qualms, especially when Bluntschli turns out to be a handsome charmer whose sad sack ways and his penchant for chocolate cream candies quickly win her over.
From this point through to the end, the production becomes a comic farce, with the action gleefully abetted by the Petkoff’s servants, the more-or-less faithful major domo Nicola (Evan Zes) and the wily maid Louka (Delphi Borich), who makes it her business to know all of the family secrets. Much of the fun comes at the expense of the pompous Sergius and the befuddled Major Petkoff, while, in true Shaw fashion, it is the women who outsmart the men at every turn. Along the way, Shaw also takes the opportunity to puncture balloons of pretentiousness and social class distinctions, though without an ounce of the serious tone that would mark some of his later plays.
In the hands of the director and its altogether delightful cast, Arms and the Man is a thoroughly joyful affair, for which we will leave the last word to Captain Bluntschli, the “chocolate cream soldier,” who reminds us all: “Never for a moment must we ever forget how lucky we all, just to be alive!”
Arms and the Man
Through November 18, 2023
Gingold Theatrical Group
Theatre Row, Theatre Two, 410 West 42nd Street New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: GingoldGroup.org