It takes something close to idiocy to think that Shaw’s comedy Arms and the Man can be played as knockabout farce. Nevertheless, that is how Roger Rees, an interesting actor but unpromising director, has chosen to stage it. So what starts as a disaster ends as a catastrophe. Outlandish concepts, cheap jokes, extreme exaggeration, cavalier disregard of Shaw’s intentions turn this feathery creature of a play into badminton played with a lead shuttlecock.
Rees has effectively directed all semblance of life out of the production and forced his actors – some of them, I dare say, only too willing – to play clowns, clichés, or caricatures. He must have instructed the set designer, Neil Patel, to provide comic-strip scenery, and the costume designer, Kaye Voyce, to create costumes fit only for a provincial circus. No wonder there was scant laughter from the audience.
There is also a certain inappositeness in the timing of this revival. Taking place during the Balkan wars, the play begins on a night when Captain Bluntschli, a commonsensical Swiss officer in the Serbian army, chased by the soldiery of a small Bulgarian town and seeking refuge, bursts into the bedroom of a young Bulgarian lady, Raina. Though scared, she hides him from his pursuers, and even gives him candy that he hungrily devours. He informs Raina that only young, inexperienced soldiers carry cartridges into combat; older and savvier ones stock up on chocolate creams. Teasingly, she calls him her chocolate-cream soldier and, abetted by her equally romantic mother, lets him spend the night.
Raina is the daughter of Major Petkoff, the only man in Bulgaria with a library, married to Catherine, the only homemaker with an electric bell. She is engaged to young Major Sergius Saranoff, who has just led a quixotic cavalry charge that triumphed only because the Serbian army was issued the wrong ammunition. And so on – a satire on war that does not sit well after Bosnia and Kosovo. No help from Henry Czerny’s uncharismatic Bluntschli, Katie Finneran’s affected and insipid Raina, and Paul Michael Valley’s operetta-ish Sergius. The proud sexpot of a maid, Louka, is played by the mannered and beanpole-ish Robin Weigert as a self-congratulatory ironing board; the shrewd manservant Nicola is deftly done by Michael Potts, but a dark-skinned black in 1885 Bulgaria, speaking with a lower-class British accent, is too much of an anomaly even for souped-up Shaw. And why British accents from Americans playing Bulgarians, anyway? The whole thing plays like Oscar Straus’s operetta version of the play, The Chocolate Soldier, performed without the music.