"You kept Sergius waiting a year before you would be betrothed to him," says Catherine Petkoff to her fickle daughter, Raina, early in George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man. "Oh, oh, if you have a drop of Bulgarian blood in you, you will worship him when he comes home!"
But as war rages in the streets outside the roomy Petkoff villa, Captain Bluntschli practically tumbles into Raina's bedroom, alternately snaring and repelling the affections of the radiantly willful young woman. To make matters worse, Bluntschli is a Swiss mercenary fighting for the Serbian side against Sergius and the Bulgarians. And so Shaw's romantic satire on love, war, and honor is off and gushing in the Roundabout Theater Company's stellar revival of the classic play, which officially opened at the Gramercy Theatre on February 10.
First performed in London in 1894, Arms and the Man is a frothy but nevertheless thought-provoking precursor to Shaw's more serious plays: e.g., Major Barbara, Pygmalion, and Saint Joan. The Roundabout's wonderful cast--led by Henry Czerny as Bluntschli, Katie Finneran as the ever-so-spoiled Raina, and Paul Michael Valley as Sergius, the man Raina has loved more in word than in deed--is elegantly directed by Roger Rees. The gorgeous Finneran, one of Broadway's hottest actors, is charming as an aristocratic young woman uncertain about whom she loves best: the dashing but self-important Sergius, or the equally robust but maddeningly matter-of-fact Bluntschli.
My only reservation really has nothing to do with this enchanting production, but stems from my keen memory of Kevin Kline's amazing performance as Bluntschli (a character seen by some as Western drama's first antihero) in Circle in the Square's 1985 revival of Arms and the Man. In the throes of battle fatigue, Kline as Bluntschli would fall asleep standing up at one moment and then, like a college professor, rattle off grim facts of war the next. At the time, Kline had recently bowled over Broadway as the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance--a role, which however swashbuckling, was basically a one-note tour-de-force. In Arms and the Man (later adapted into the appropriately named operetta The Chocolate Soldier), Kline had to be both real and raffishly reckless, cool-headed but quaint. He was all of the above, rolled into one. And yet Henry Czerny, who has his own movie-star good looks, goes a long way toward making up for the lack of Kline's zaniness with his more sober portrayal of this chocolate soldier for the Roundabout.
Shaw's intention in Arms and the Man was to poke fun at the type of military man who would rather carry chocolate creams than bullets into battle. On the other hand, he was pointing out the pragmatism that modern military leaders need to win. In effect, weapons are useless if you don't have the strength to use them. Paul Michael Valley catches just the right balance in Sergius: a bombastic clown who has a roving eye for the ladies and signs ceasefire agreements he can't even read, but also a genuine war hero who has played a key roll in "scattering those wretched Serbs and dandified Austrian officers" (as Catherine Petkoff puts it).
Sandra Shipley shines as Catherine, whose steely affection for her daughter is only rivaled by her conviction that Sergius is a darn good catch. And I guarantee we'll be seeing a whole lot more of Robin Weigert--who fairly screams of saucy sensuality here as the servant Louka--on TV and in movies, as well as on stage. Tom Bloom (as Catherine's husband, Paul Petkoff) and Mark Deklin (as a Russian officer) fill out the ensemble with style, skill and a sharp sense of fun.
The play and the performers are splendidly served by Neil Patel's shadowy set, with its Middle Eastern flourishes, and by Kaye Voyce's costumes and Frances Aronson's lighting.