Cheery revival of `Arms and the Man.' Shaw's once-controversial satire on military pomp is still good fun

Arms and the Man Comedy by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by John Malkovich. Starring Kevin Kline, Raul Julia, Glenne Headly.

A splendid display of acting by a well-tempered ensemble animates the revival of ``Arms and the Man,'' at the Broadway Circle in the Square and ends an uneven season on a welcome note of good cheer. While time has ameliorated the once-controversial aspects of the 1894 Shavian satire on romantic posturings and military vainglory, changing attitudes haven't taken the fun out of the comedy.

Yet ``Arms and the Man'' did cause controversy among a public for whom two world wars, countless other conflagrations, and the atomic bomb still lay in the future. In his preface to ``Plays Pleasant,'' the author writes: ``I am quite aware that the much criticized Swiss officer in `Arms and the Man' is not a conventional stage soldier. He suffers from want of food and sleep; his nerves go to pieces after three days under fire, ending in the horrors of a rout and a pursuit; he has found by experience that it is more important to have a few bits of chocolate to eat in the field than cartridges for his revolver.''

The defense of Captain Bluntschli can serve to introduce the opening scene, in which the pursued officer takes refuge in the bedroom of Raina Petkoff, the romantic daughter of the Bulgarian major from whose troops Bluntschli is fleeing. In this prelude to what follows, Kevin Kline's handsome ``chocolate cream soldier'' and delectable Glenne Headly's fluttering Raina establish the comic tension that sparks their scenes together. As Shaw's alter ego on this occasion, the Kline Bluntschli is the most amiable of combatants -- a model of courtesy, a pragmatist who wins through conciliation, a man who never condescends to his intellectual inferiors and who ends up discovering that he has been a committed romantic from the days of his youth.

The other members of the cast wittily directed by John Malkovich enter with unbounded zest into the comedy's ridiculous dilemmas and deceptions. These have mainly to do with the consternation of Raina and her mother when Bluntschli makes a postwar visit to the Petkoffs to return the major's coat Raina had lent the fugitive Swiss. Raul Julia is magnificently absurd as Raina's fickle fianc'e, Sergius Saranoff, the cavalry major who has blundered into a victory. This paragon of military pomp laments that ``everything I think is mocked by everything I do.''

The dedicated Shavian octet at the Circle in the Square is completed by Caitlin Clark, a saucily self-determining maid Louka; Louis Zorich as Major Petkoff, whose pride in the family's new library is matched by his scorn for ablutionary affectations; Dimitra Arliss as the undoubted head of the Petkoff household; George Morfogen as a domestic with a method in his subservience; and Guy Paul as an incidental but very heel-clicking Russian officer.

Shaw's stage directions are specific about the mountain views that tower in the distance and are seen from the Petkoff house. Working within the limits of an arena auditorium, scene designer Thomas Lynch has cleverly solved the problem by flanking the stage with miniature snowy mountains dotted with tiny chalets, whose pinpoint windows gleam when the house lights dim. Other credits for this handsome revival include Ann Roth (costumes), Richard Nelson (lighting), Paul Huntley (wigs), and Louis Rosen (incidental music).

Historically speaking, ``Arms and the Man'' is the play that prompted Shaw's famous reply to the solitary booer in a cheering first-night audience: ``My dear fellow, I quite agree with you; but what are we two against so many?'' There is no booing at the Circle in the Square. -- 30 --

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