By Joseph Hurley
ARMS AND THE MAN, by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Ernest Johns. Starring Jason Crowl and Amanda Jones. Jean Cocteau Repertory. At The Bouwerie Lane Theatre, NYC. Through May 12.
“Arms and the Man,” perhaps the sunniest and arguably the silliest of George Bernard Shaw’s early comedies, might be the last play in the English language you might expect to take on anything resembling “topicality” as a result of world events, but that’s precisely what’s happened, albeit in a lighthearted sort of way.
The Dublin-born Shaw wrote “Arms and the Man” in 1894, just nine years after the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885, the conflict that serves as the background for the work. It was only the fourth play the red-haired Irishman had completed, even though he was almost 40 at the time.
The newfound relevance to actual recent events, of course, is connected to renewed skirmishes in the frequently disrupted Balkan States, activities that brought previously unfamiliar place names, Bosnia and others, into the public consciousness.
In “Arms and the Man,” a particularly beloved Shavian caper, a toweringly unmilitary individual, Captain Bluntschli, takes refuge from the battle raging in the streets nearby by invading the bedroom of Raina Petkoff, the naive, spoiled daughter of a Bulgarian major.
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So ill-equipped by nature for the military life that he carries chocolates in his cartridge belt, Bluntschli, a mercenary soldier who wears the uniform of the Serbian army, is actually a Swiss, performing the duties of what used to be called a “Hessian soldier,” a man who enlists in the army of a country other than the nation of his birth.
Bluntschli’s fondness for sweets motivates the innocent Raina to refer to him as her “chocolate cream soldier,” a term that, slightly altered, furnished the title for “The Chocolate Soldier,” the beloved operetta version of Shaw’s comedy, written by the Austrian composer Oskar Straus.
“Arms and the Man” is now being given a charming and engagingly frothy revival by the Jean Cocteau Repertory as part of the group’s 31st season in residence at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, where the show will be playing in repertory through May 12.
The most recent major New York staging of the play, probably feeling the pressure of events in the news, confronted its audiences with a vast show curtain on which was painted a map of the Balkan Peninsula extending from the Ionian Sea to the Adriatic. No such literalism for the Jean Cocteau production, directed by Ernest Johns, who provides an “Arms and the Man” that plays as breezily as if it had started life as the libretto for “The Chocolate Soldier.”
Johns is particularly fortunate in his casting of Amanda Jones, his peach-colored Raina, and of Jason Crowl, the production’s stalwart and vaguely giddy Bluntschli.
The Cocteau’s Sergius, the somewhat walrussy Mark Rimer, seems miscast on the one hand, and, on the other, appears to have suffered from the Cocteau’s traditionally stringent budget, forced to wear a “military uniform” that looks as though it had been created for use at a child’s birthday party.
Faring at least marginally better are Carey Van Driest as the cheeky house servant, Louka, and Marlene May, playing Raina’s dotty mother, Catherine, wearing costumes that practically scream of their suitability for musical comedy.
Harris Berlinsky as Raina’s father, Major Paul Petkoff, and Michael Surabian, as the family’s man-of-all-work, Nicola, are adept and suitably Balkan-seeming into the bargain.
“Arms and the Man,” on one level, is a half-hearted triangle in which Sergius and Bluntschli vie for Raina’s somewhat skittish affections. So that audiences wouldn’t take Sergius too seriously, Shaw involves him in a kind of pro forma dalliance with Louka, when the members of the Petkoff household aren’t looking.
The playwright doesn’t take it all too seriously, and neither do the people behind the Cocteau’s generally sparkling, entirely enjoyable new staging of Shaw’s enduring little confection.
— Joseph Hurley