Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Love and war at the Lyric

Ellen Adair and Barlow Adamson in Arms and the Man.

George Bernard Shaw thought of himself as a kind of disillusionist - an intellectual Penn & Teller, if you will, who dismantled harmful cultural delusions before his audience's eyes. The resulting demonstrations Shaw famously divided into "Plays Pleasant" (which amused as much as they provoked) and "Unpleasant" (in which sex and commerce were treated more baldly) - with Arms and the Man, currently in a smart, if not entirely satisfying, production at the Lyric Stage, widely considered among the playwright's most pleasant.

Indeed, Arms and the Man has certainly had legs (if you'll pardon the pun), not only inspiring a hit operetta (The Chocolate Soldier) but also being revived more than most of the rest of the Shaw canon combined. This is not only due to the eternal relevance of its central theme - the folly of romantic and military ideals - but also to said theme's encapsulation in a short, genuinely funny farce of unforced charm.

So a production of Arms and the Man is always good news - and so is most of the new staging by Spiro Veloudos at the Lyric. It gets at least half the show right - the war part, that is; as for the love part, that, alas, seems to have gone AWOL. There's little chemistry between its two capable stars, Barlow Adamson and Ellen Adair, and so the fact that it's a romantic comedy is something we often have to take on faith (not, I'm afraid, a very Shavian thing to do).

Which is too bad, because Shaw was far from a cynic about the tender passion; indeed, he may have been one of the most romantic men who ever lived. Shaw's brief in Arms and elsewhere was not to disparage love but to divorce it from its illusions, and ground it in practicality - which is little in evidence in his opening scene, which finds the sweet, smart, but dangerously naive Raina Petkoff (Adair) thrilling in her cossetted boudoir to the military exploits of her beloved, the pompously dashing Sergius Saranoff (yes, I know the characters sound like extras from Rocky and Bullwinkle). Said hero has just led a daring charge through a pass outside of town (Shaw set his comic bagatelle in an all-too-brutal Balkan conflict of 1885), but in the ensuing mêlée, the combatants have begun streaming into the city, and soon Raina is confronted on her own balcony with the Enemy - in the person of a pragmatic Swiss mercenary named Bluntschli (Adamson), who rather bluntly begins to shake her from her assumptions - and even her engagement.

Said shaking is made infinitely easier by the fact that Raina's betrothed (James Ryen) is better suited to a match with her sexy, insolent maid (Sarah Abrams) - both idealists, it turns out, have a secret jones for the worldly, and thus Shaw can neatly tie up his comedy without any particularly wrenching dislocations or losses, goosing the proceedings along with funny bumbling from Raina's parents, the Major and Mrs. Petkoff (reliable farceurs Ken Baltin and Bobbie Steinbach, above). The production is actually at its best when these actors square off with Shaw's opposing arguments, which Veloudos is sharp enough to have finely honed. The Shavian shots over the bow of militarism all land just where they should (Veloudos opens with an amusing pastiche of patriotic anthems, just so we get the joke), and the director draws some particularly funny internal dialectic out of newcomer James Ryen. But elsewhere Ryen feels merely blank - he seems to always be waiting for his next cue - and as his love interest, Sarah Abrams acts as if she's auditioning for some Bulgarian sitcom. Meanwhile Barlow Adamson brings about the right mix of practical acumen and subdued dash to Bluntschli, but perhaps not quite enough hidden, childlike sensitivity (mothering is always a component of Shaw's romantic mix), and Adair, while nailing all her laugh lines, comes off as increasingly self-aware but still a bit glassily unfeeling; we really don't understand where her sudden, truly romantic impulses come from (tough mama Bobbie Steinbach actually exudes more amorous allure).

There are other, slight, problems in the staging. For reasons unknown, Molly Trainer has turned to the Vienna Secession and Gustav Klimt to clothe her heartily bourgeois Bulgarians (this is a bit like dressing Archie Bunker in Prada) and Christina Todesco has styled their rustic crib as a pretty, pseudo-Art-Nouveau gazebo. I suppose to most Lyric subscribers, these artists and movements have all blurred together into "turn-of-the-century," but to more discerning observers, the choices look odd - just enough so, when added to other missteps, to keep this production of Arms from achieving its full reach.

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