When “Arms and the Man” opened in the West End in April 1894, George Bernard Shaw found himself called onto the stage after the curtain to receive a cavalcade of applause. The response surprised Shaw who had been uncertain about the quality of his new play, and when one member of the audience booed rather than cheering, Shaw replied, “My dear fellow, I quite agree with you, but what are we two against so many?”
…met with great applause, and the Washington Stage Guide company earned every bit of it.
The current production of “Arms and the Man” was also met with great applause, and the Washington Stage Guide company earned every bit of it. As for the play itself, I reserve some of the playwright’s original skepticism.
The play, set in the final days of a war between Bulgaria and Serbia that lasted just two weeks, critiques the glorification of war and the twisted notion of romanticizing mechanized mass slaughter. But Shaw’s satire is not as biting as he might have hoped. The third act is more a comedy of romantic confusion than a commentary on war, feeling more like “The Importance of Being Earnest” than “Catch 22.”
In his director’s note, Michael Rothhaar calls Shaw a “very crafty card player,” writing that “you never know what you will be dealt.” Largess and his cast play the hand they’ve been dealt by Shaw with verve and humor, getting more out of the playwright’s words than the script would seem to allow.
The two sides of the question of war are embodied by Major Sergius Saranoff, newly minted a Bulgarian national hero after pulling off a reckless and bloody cavalry charge that should have failed, and Captain Bluntschli, a Swiss mercenary for the Serbian side who sees the battlefield as about as romantic as a factory floor—just a way to earn a living.
Sergius is an exaggerated stereotype of the strutting, swaggering officer, and Thomas Daniels delivers as this embodiment of the Dunning-Kruger effect—a soldier who keeps failing upwards even though he has no idea what he is doing. Daniels’s portrayal brings to mind the boorish Gaston of “Beauty and the Beast,” a legend in his own mind who gives little thought to how his self-aggrandizing actions impact those around him.
Bluntschli is a more nuanced character, and Zack Powell’s understated performance makes it clear why Em Whitworth’s Raina is attracted to him despite herself. Powell’s Bluntschli is a jaded humanist, hating war but resigned to its inevitability and just doing what he needs to do in order to survive.
Whitworth’s Raina is the pivot point between these two men, and she is a delight. Most of Shaw’s characters in “Arms and the Man” are types who change little throughout the three acts, but Raina—intelligent but sheltered—evolves as she learns more of the realities of war. The three ultimately develop a friendship, and even Sergius (who is more dolt than villain) gets a happy ending.
Joseph B. Musumeci, Jr.’s sets are detailed and complex—perhaps a bit too complex, since they require intervals after each act to be reset for the next. This is not unique to this production since most mountings of “Arms and the Man” include two intermissions. For a play that runs just two hours even with these breaks, it is too much downtime for the audience.
Running Time: Two hours with two intermissions.
“Arms and the Man” runs through December 10, 2023, at Washington Stage Guild, performing at the Undercroft Theatre, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20001. For more information and tickets, go online.