By Joseph Hurley
ARMS AND THE MAN, by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Roger Rees. Featuring Henry Czerny, Katie Finneran and Paul Michael Valley. Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company. At the Gramercy Theatre, 127 East 23rd St. Through May 7.
A couple of potent theatrical gremlins have invaded Roger Rees’s Roundabout Theatre Company production of George Bernard Shaw’s "Bulgarian" comedy, "Arms and the Man," one rather jovially elderly, and the other sober, inherently tragic, and inescapable.
That contemporary demon, of course, is linked to the fact that war has come again to the Balkans, the part of the world where Shaw located what he intended to be a romantic farce with a few harmless ideas about military men, women, love and loyalty on its mind. When one of the eight characters who populate "Arms and the Man" makes a comment, early in the play’s first act, about the "hateful Serbs," or something close to that, the remark brings contemporary events center stage in an instant, a position to which today’s harsh realities cling tenaciously for much of the rest of the evening.
The second little imp, wriggling into the Roundabout’s cotton candy-colored production, at the Gramercy Theatre through May 7, stems from the fact that the Viennese composer Oskar Straus, in 1909, wrote an operetta, "The Chocolate Soldier," based on "Arms and the Man," which became a 500-performance hit in London, and, subsequently, was staged by light opera troupes around the world with some regularity.
Seldom done now, "The Chocolate Soldier," which took its title from the fact that the decidedly unheroic central figure, the Swiss soldier-of-fortune Captain Bluntschli, keeps chocolate bonbons in his cartridge belt in lieu of bullets, nevertheless contains enough memorable music that some of the play’s lines come across like song cues left behind by a vanished orchestra.
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For example, early in Act I, when the dreamy heroine, Raina Petkoff, stares at a framed portrait of Major Sergius Saranoff, to whom she is affianced, and reflects on the qualities she looks for in a man, it’s difficult not to hear the strains of "My Hero," probably the best-known song in the Straus score.
If "Arms and the Man" suffers from the echoes of its musicalization, both Shaw’s "Pygmalion" and Shakespeare’s "The Taming of the Shrew" have far more severe cases of the same infection, caused by their Broadway transmogrifications into, of course, "My Fair Lady" and "Kiss Me, Kate," respectively.
Director Rees, a sterling British actor known here for his work in the title role of the epochal Royal Shakespeare Company production of "Nicholas Nickleby" nearly two decades ago, has compounded the felony, to an extent, by using explosive blasts of the music of a more famous Austrian music man, Johann Strauss, at numerous points in the course of his generally hyperactive production.
Taking their cue, perhaps, from the overamplified Strauss snippets played at near-distortion level through the Gramercy’s sound system, or, maybe competing with the music in the interests of being heard, Rees’s actors do a considerable amount of screaming, as though a moment of quiet contemplation might capsize the endeavor entirely.
The boyishly awkward Bluntschli, leaving his native Switzerland in search of an army to join, has found himself in what Shaw calls "a small town near the Dragoman Pass, Bulgaria," because that particular country’s army was the first one he encountered on his naive journey.
"Arms and the Man," which derives its title from a passage in Virgil’s "’neid," which reads, in Latin, "Arma virum que cano," translating as "Of arms and the man I sing," was Shaw’s fourth play but only the second to be produced, facing its first audience with middling success on April 21, 1894, when its author was 38, and just beginning to find his feet as a dramatist, having tasted mild celebrity with his first production, "Widowers’ Houses," in 1892.
The comedy’s heroine, Raina, played in Rees’s production by the tall, blonde Katie Finneran, who appeared to good effect two seasons ago in the Roundabout production of Shaw’s 1899 success, "You Never Can Tell," is the loved, perhaps overindulged daughter of a garrison major and his wife, coarsely done here by Tom Bloom and Sandra Shipley, the latter decked out in Act I in a bizarre gypsy outfit, courtesy of the show’s costume designer, Kaye Voyce, who appears to have been under the impression that the troupe was, in fact, doing a musical.
Actress Finneran suffers a fate not unfamiliar to tall, graceful actresses cast opposite actors somewhat short of stature. Her Bluntschli, the Canadian Henry Czerny, well remembered for his work in the two-part, reality-based film, "The Boys of St. Vincent," is something like a vest-pocket version of Harrison Ford, which makes for an awkward pairing with the swan-like Finneran.
The Roundabout’s Sergius, a role played to perfection for Broadway’s Circle-in-the-Square 15 years ago by an ideally cast Kevin Kline, is Paul Michael Valley, who recently did good work on the Gramercy stage in Richard Greenberg’s "Hurrah at Last," and, earlier, in the same company’s revival of "1776."
Unfortunately, reflecting the breadth and lack of subtlety with which the production is hobbled, the talented Valley appears to be playing his vain, shallow guardsman as though the character were in a play by a different George, the French farceur Feydeau, rather than the cooly verbose Irishman, Shaw.
Ironically, GBS’s characteristic noodlings on class and nationality, among other things, are left to the paper-thin Sergius in his flirtation with the Petkoff family’s serving girl, Louka, played with striking hauteur by Robin Weigert in Rees’s wobbly production.
Czerny, a welcome actor making a perhaps unfortunate Roundabout debut, seems a little like a college wrestler waking up to find himself somehow recruited by a professional basketball team. Particularly in Act I, when Frances Aronson’s lighting design relies heavily on illumination by a fair number of candles and lanterns, Bluntschli, seeking refuge in Raina’s bedroom while snow falls in the street, is difficult to see in the dim glow available.
With the arrival of Acts II and III, things improve considerably, but actor Czerny is nevertheless waging an uphill struggle against the considerable obstacles so liberally strewn in his Shavian path.
Neil Patel’s scenic design, immediately appealing as its turntable carries Raina’s bedchamber, the Petkoff sitting room, and a classic archway leading to that snowy exterior on and off like ornaments on a gigantic Lazy Susan, soon develops a problem of its own.
Behind the items making up the furnishings of the family’s lodgings is a beautifully executed half-circle cyclorama depicting a period map of the Balkans. How can an audience be criticized for studying the borders of the unfamiliar regions so elegantly depicted?
How could they not ponder names such as Lovatz and Lometz, wondering, perhaps, how those strange names might have mutated into the agonized terms far too recognizable from the nightly television coverage of the carnage which has overtaken the area?
Surely, the production’s audience may be forgiven for concentrating on such a stunning example of the cartographer’s art, particularly when so little of genuine interest is going on in front of it.