BY STEPHEN DiLAURO | Productions require lots of planning, especially one as rich and entertaining as the Gingold Group’s “Arms and the Man,” currently running at Theatre Row on W. 42nd Street. So, it is a sad serendipity that this pithy comedy by George Bernard Show is being staged at a time of hideous anguish for pacifists. Nonetheless, the show is a thoroughly pleasant, laugh-filled evening. If you can see only one classic play this season, make it this one.
David Staller’s direction is spot on and historically important, as well as being true comic relief from a lugubrious international reality. In a program note, Staller explains the breaking of the fourth wall — that is, the cast addressing the audience – that Shaw himself planned for “Arms and the Man” but never got around to staging. The playwright would be pleased with the results here, one imagines.
Of course, it helps that the cast has gelled into a crisp, enthusiastic ensemble. Karen Ziemba is marvelous as Catherine Petkoff, a countrified grande dame and lady of the house where the action occurs. Her presence lends the show irresistible energy, from her lively introductions of the three acts/scenes to her expressive portrayal of the matron whose relentless practicality is the household’s vulnerable center of gravity.
The story is set during the brief, forgotten Bulgarian War of 1885, which ended in the Serbian army being routed by the Bulgarian force. On a night shortly after a total defeat in battle, a Swiss mercenary breaks into the bedroom of Raina Petkoff, the beautiful daughter and only child of the Petkoff family. The lovely Shanel Bailey is divine in this role, which requires a balancing act between the serious and the comedic. Bailey delivers throughout.
Keshav Moodliar plays the intruder and he hits all the right comic notes while maintaining the plot’s tension. This fraught encounter ends with the young woman and her mother helping the soldier escape.
Several weeks after the invasion of the young woman’s boudoir, the war may be finished but things are just heating up in the Petkoff household. Major Paul Petkoff, husband and father, returns home, as does Raina’s betrothed – the hilariously pompous and two-timing Major Sergius Saranoff, who is also the author of the Serbians’ biggest defeat, sort of.
Thomas Jay Ryan is perfect as the deadpan and war-weary paterfamilias. He delivers some of Shaw’s lines pointing out the absurdity and uselessness of war with a poignant irony. Meanwhile, Ben Davis plays the puffed-up ass who won a battle because the other side – in a typical military snafu – had the wrong bullets for their guns. (Oh, that no bullets fit any guns…what a wonderful world.)
Davis’s character, Saranoff, fiancé to Raina, is besotted by the Petkoff’s maid Louka, who Delphi Borich brings to life with exquisite comic timing. She’s a beauty, a coquette, a flirt, and possibly engaged to the manservant Nikola, who is played by, last and anything but least, a crafty and comedic Evan Zes.
This show is not a musical, but the director Staller has wrought his cast into a cohesive, pitch-perfect ensemble. By the final scene the players are irresistible as the broad comic acting provokes laugh after laugh.
It’s then that the Swiss mercenary reappears ostensibly to return a coat the ladies lent him for his escape. In the play’s reality, however, he is smitten by Raina Petkoff. This turns into a five-sided (pentagon!) love unraveling and reforming in a snappy sequence of dialog worthy of a French bedroom farce. This is punctuated throughout with Shavian quips on the futility and ridiculousness of the human tendency to war. Believe me, please. I’ve not given away too much. There’s so much more in this delightful and meaningful theatrical confection that you must see.
As a playwright and roving cultural correspondent, I’ve come to the conclusion that design is at its most effulgent and effective when in service of a great play. That is certainly the case with Lindsay Fuori’s charming black-and-white set. I found the line-drawing motif subtle, charming and evocative. This was accented by excellent lighting accents designed by Jamie Roderick. And Tracy Christensen’s superb costumes were so well-suited (pun intended) that all I can say is “Bravo!”
Gingold Theatrical Group, the production entity, is a nonprofit organization founded by the director David Staller 18 years ago and named for his friend the late, great Hermione Gingold. GTG is devoted to presenting the works of Shaw and to discovering new works that reflect Shaw’s values. (He was a Fabian socialist and pacifist.)
GTG is a noble undertaking that more than keeps alive the works of one of the greatest English-language playwrights of all time, if this production of “Arms and the Man” is an indicator. Despite the topic, it is a fun presentation that, for an all-too-brief two hours, obliterates the relentless darkness that war-mongering world leaders are foisting upon us all. I am grateful that Shaw’s plays flourish here.
“Arms and the Man,” at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St., through Nov. 18. For information and tickets, see gingoldgroup.org.
DiLauro is a playwright and poet. His current effort “Dinner with the Devil” is somewhere in the production process. More can be found on YouTube at UkeJackson.