Love and war have so much in common: passion, struggle, the subtle distinctions between victor and vanquished, even how seriously we take both subjects. In the classic comedy “Arms and the Man,” George Bernard Shaw skewers it all and even throws in a little class struggle for giggles.
The story begins in the bedroom of Raina Petkoff (Wrenn Schmidt). Having just learned that the Bulgarian army has defeated Serbian forces, she is overcome with patriotic fervor. Even better, her fiancé, Major Sergius Saranoff (Enver Gjokaj), is the hero, having led a successful cavalry charge against Serbian machine guns.
The routed Serbian forces are being chased through the town and one soldier, Swiss mercenary Captain Bluntschli (Zach Appelman), shinnies up a drain pipe to enter Petkoff’s bedroom and escape certain death. She is both fascinated and repelled by the filthy, but polite, Bluntschli. With help from her mother, Catherine Petkoff (Marsha Mason), she helps him escape.
When peace is declared, Major Saranoff and Raina’s father, Major Paul Petkoff (Conrad John Schuck), return from the war. Raina and Saranoff rekindle their romance, but the interlude with Bluntschli overshadows the household. When Bluntschli returns, things really get going.
Bluntschli and Saranoff represent two divergent attitudes toward war. Bluntschli is calm, dry and well-mannered. He believes a soldier’s primary responsibility is to survive and make himself as comfortable as he can. Saranoff is more never retreat, never surrender. He wants to do the right thing but is completely overwhelmed by his own shifting passions. Ultimately, Saranoff has no idea what he might say or do next.
While Appelman is excellent as Bluntschli, exuding gallons of well-bred confidence, Gjokaj steals the show. His Saranoff lurches from dramatic pose to dramatic pose, seemingly controlled by outside forces. These movements are both awkward and graceful, as if he were simultaneously channeling John Cleese and Mikhail Baryshnikov. His delivery is equally amusing: a man who shouts to order coffee.
Schuck and Mason are also excellent in relatively minor roles. The show is rounded out with the servants Louka (Sofiya Akilova) and Nicola (Greg Hildreth), who are nominally engaged to be married, but have distinct philosophical differences on their station in life.
The sets are brilliant, both rustic and sumptuous as would befit the only family in Bulgaria with its own library. Stone does a nice job of bringing everything together; the looks that get exchanged between characters speak volumes. A village violinist (Ernest Sauceda) is an especially nice touch, and much-appreciated during the two intermissions.
The genius of “Arms and the Man” is that it delivers deep thoughts about love, war and class in a chocolate-covered coating. There’s a lot to think about, but first a little fun.