Although it was only the fourth in his canon of 65 plays, George Bernard Shaw’s farcical three-act comedy Arms and the Man, written in 1894, became one of his first successes and remains one of his most insightful and ever-timely musings on class, relationships, war, and the enduring social pretenses associated with money and power. Gingold Theatrical Group’s sparkling production, playing a limited engagement at Theatre Row, deftly captures it all with a light-hearted touch, an eye on the absurdities of human behavior, and a clear humanitarian message to be yourself, to respect others, and to “let life happen.”
Set at the estate of the Petkoff family in Bulgaria during the time of the brief Serbo-Bulgarian War in 1855, the witty and wildly unlikely story follows the eye-opening impact of a dirty and exhausted Swiss mercenary soldier for the Serbian army, who, with gun drawn, unexpectedly enters the boudoir of Raina through the balcony doors to evade the Bulgarian troops actively shooting outside. The pompous young woman he encounters – daughter of the wealthy and prominent Major Paul Petkoff and his wife Catherine, and betrothed to the vain war hero Major Sergius Saranoff – saves him from certain death by hiding him under her bedding and enlisting her mother to disguise him in her father’s coat so he can safely leave the house, after hearing that his pistol isn’t loaded and he only carries chocolates in his ammunition bag. Her actions, and her attraction to the “chocolate-cream soldier” and his philosophy of life, trigger a zany chain of events, with secret romances, pre-existing connections, eavesdropping servants, and life-changing revelations that put them all on a new evenly balanced path to happiness.
David Staller, Founding Artistic Director of Gingold and an internationally respected expert on Shaw, directs the still-resonant spoof of society and its long-held divisive values with engaging humor, spot-on timing, and a clever conveyance of its moral. To that end, he incorporates the playwright’s long-intended meta-theatrical additions of direct-address segments by the full cast, in which they deliver the curtain speech, introduce their roles and situations, prepare the audience for what’s to come, and close with an amusing curtain call, all performed downstage behind a row of line-drawn cut-outs of footlights that reenforces the immediacy of the funny farce with breaks through the theatrical fourth wall into our collective reality.
An all-in cast turns in perfectly honed portrayals of the laughable posturing and narcissism, antics and confrontations, lies and evasions of the lampooned characters, until they are finally swayed by the more progressive values and peaceful ethics of the Swiss soldier, later identified as Captain Bluntschli (who cleans up nicely), played with persuasive likeability by Keshav Moodliar. As Raina, Shanel Bailey strikes poses, issues commands, and circumvents the truth until she catches herself, comes down to earth, and laughs at her own elitist nonsense. Ben Davis’s Sergius, Raina’s intended, is as full of himself as she is, swaggering and boasting, and less-than-faithful in his commitment to her.
Karen Ziemba is a howl as the social-climbing Catherine Petkoff, bragging about the three new books in her library and the newly installed electric bell to summon the servants, registering her emotions in her readily legible facial expressions, and determined to marry off her daughter to the man who will best advance her standing and finances, while Thomas Jay Ryan as her husband Paul is as easily duped by the behind-the-scenes activities of his family, colleagues, and household staff as he is confused by the sudden reappearance of his missing coat. Rounding out the excellent company are Delphi Borich and Evan Zes as the enterprising and self-possessed maid Louka and butler Nicola, who see it all and use it to their own future advantage.
A delightful set by Lindsay Genevieve Fuori, with delicate white furniture and black-on-white line drawings of the architecture, statues, and stage curtains, enhanced with lighting by Jamie Roderick and props by Emmarose Campbell, transitions easily from bedroom to garden, and shows the inspiration of the miniature form of toy theater popular in 19th-century Europe, printed on paperboard and assembled at home, in keeping with the production’s meta-theatrical references. Period-style costumes and military uniforms by Tracy Christensen and hair and wigs by Cassie Williams define the characters and their status, and Julian Evans’ sound design provides the recurrent gunshots from which Bluntschli hides and thereby launches the entire farcical narrative.
As is always the case with Gingold, Arms and the Man is a consummately understood and highly entertaining representation of the work of Shaw (in which the company specializes), his exposure of human nature through comedy, and his mission of encouraging change for the better. I encourage you to see it while you can, before this top-notch limited engagement closes on Saturday.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including a brief interval.
Arms and the Man plays through Saturday, November 18, 2023, at Gingold Theatrical Group, performing at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $76.50, including fees), go online.