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Critic: Simon Saltzman. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February
23, 2000. All rights reserved.
Broadway Review: `Arms and the Man’
Written in 1894 and set in the late 19th century,
the time of the Serbo-Bulgarian war, "Arms and the Man," is
a double-edge sword. While cleverly penned to discredit the myths
of war and its warriors, George Bernard Shaw’s fourth play (and first
success), also rebukes social protocol and romantic insincerity. One
of the most astonishing elements of Roger Rees’s new staging for the
Roundabout Theater Company is the set designed by Neil Patel. Painted
onto the sepia-toned curved walls of the handsome revolving set is
a sprawling map of the besieged region — the same towns, rivers
and territories (boundaries change, of course, with every decade)
that we have been reading about in today’s news.
In Shaw’s lilting, lyrical, anti-militaristic farce, romance comes
first, closely pursued by comedy. But ironically, we also watch the
giddy old-fashioned action from the perspective of our knowledge of
current events. Tragic as these events may be, wouldn’t Shaw be
The play’s formidable backdrop does not detract from the presence
of effervescent charm that resides in a maiden’s bedchamber, namely
Katie Finneran, who plays Raina, daughter of the richest and most
prominent family in Bulgaria. If Finneran’s is the performance that
tickles us the most in this sweet, but unsurprising, production, the
others, under Rees’s direction, deliver — with varying degrees
of success — the fresh and impudent behavior that suits the three
joyful acts (here combined into two acts) of this purposeful nonsense.
The cast is a rather fresh-faced lot, perhaps not as daringly engaging
as other casts I have seen in this popular play. (I’m still ready
to chuckle remembering Raul Julia, Kevin Kline, Glenne Headly, Louis
Zorich, and Kaitlin Clark in a riotous, 1985 Circle in the Square
production, directed by John Malkovich.)
With the exception of the first half of Act I, when everyone seemed
to be shouting at each other as if they were warming up for a
of Oscar Straus’ operetta version "The Chocolate Soldier,"
and during which the actors appeared to be acting in as many styles
as there are varieties of chocolates in a five-pound box, the play
and its players ultimately provide the intended two hours of
Only after you begin to question whether this is the way for an
to act out Shaw’s comical inquiry into the various and variable ethics
that dictate man’s behavior, can you appreciate the joke of so many
individualized acting styles. Rees’s concept has a Shavian shiver
to it, and, as such, offers a treat to those too often lulled by mere
consistency of style.
Of course this freewheeling approach would never work without actors
able to sustain the grand illusion of their own half-mad delusions.
Henry Czerny has a very contemporary American deportment as the
Swiss mercenary Captain Bluntschli. It is for Bluntschli, who would
rather have chocolates than bullets in his pockets, to put to rest
the myth of war and its heroes. In Czerny, we have a rather unusual
and un-dashing, but delightful, Bluntschli whose bedside brand of
cynical insecurity puts to rest any number of cliches about heroic
behavior. When the hungry, tired, and frightened fugitive takes
refuge from pursuing soldiers among the ruffles in a maiden’s boudoir,
he uses the only ammunition he has left: "Would you like to see
If we missed the outrageous pomp, circumstance, and
heel-clicking that usually personifies Major Sergius Saranoff,
hero of the hour, the idol of the regiment," and Raina’s fiancee,
Paul Michael Valley’s display of none-too-subtle stupidity and his
imposing countenance in braided uniform and polished boots are its
own rewards. That is, until he finally opens his mouth and declares,
"Everything I think is mocked by everything I do." Valley
falls short when it comes making Serguis’ airs of narcissism and phony
gallantries as funny as the playwright intended, but he makes Sergius’
cautious bravado an endearing trait.
For a short time, I was a little nonplused by Finneran’s flaky
both in speech and behavior. But this irresistibly clever, lovely
actor soon had me laughing aloud at every delicious turn of phrase.
Tom Bloom was appropriately dense as the old Major. Robin Weigert
had some insinuating moments as the cunningly sensual maid. Michael
Potts, as Nicola, the manservant with a cockney accent and an
and Sandra Shipley, as Raina’s mother Catherine, bent on modernizing
her home with an electric servant’s bell, were skillful in their more
Some historical trivia: Shaw took the title of the play from the first
line of Virgil’s "Aeneid," which reads in Latin, "Arma
virum que cano" — "Of arms and the man I sing." In
the "Aeneid," Virgil praises the glory of military work; thus
Shaw’s title is a tongue-in-cheek tribute in the form of a comedy
that debunks all notion of military glory. Two stars.
— Simon Saltzman
Theater, 127 East 23 Street, New York, 212-777-4900. $55. Through
The key: Four stars. Don’t miss; Three stars, You won’t feel
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and Tim Rice.
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— Simon Saltzman
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