Part of the draw at American Players Theatre is the trip to the country and the pre-curtain picnic ritual. No matter how good the theater is at APT -" and make no mistake, it's good "- the drama onstage is not the only thing people go out to Spring Green for. To make an 83-mile round trip worthwhile, the evening has to be an event.
For Saturday night's opening of George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man, I skipped the picnic and arrived shortly before the 8 p.m. curtain. The picnic grounds were deserted, save for a man and his son gobbling salads from Culver's. Brave souls! This flies in the face of the reigning wicker-picnic-hamper-and-bottle-of-wine esthetic, and I applaud them for it.
So, I suspect, would Shaw (as long as the salads were vegetarian). In Arms and the Man, Shaw pokes holes in the veneer of the social-climbing Petkoff family. Mrs. Petkoff (Sarah Day) keeps reminding everyone of the addition of an electronic bell to call the servants; her daughter Raina (Colleen Madden) wraps herself in a voluptuous fur. Raina is engaged to a soldier away at war whom she idolizes, but into this milieu bursts (literally) a Swiss soldier-for-hire, fighting for the other side (the Serbs). Captain Bluntschli (the excellent John Thompson) has escaped from the Russian/Bulgarian forces by climbing through Raina's window. To even her own surprise, Raina hides him in her room and helps him escape in an old coat of her father's.
Raina and her mother romanticize war and their men's bravery, but the down-to-earth Bluntschli explodes their dearly held myths. When he returns, along with Raina's father and fiancé, all family order is upset.
While war is topic A, class is topic B, as servant Louka (Leah Curney) rails against her place and Nicola (Scott Haden) upholds it. Shaw attacks artifice in all forms, arguing for a more direct, stripped-down, honest approach to relations.
Yet Arms and the Man is a comedy, and the cast displays sharp timing. As Raina's fiancé, Jim DeVita also exploits his vocal inflection to great comic effect, as does Day as her mother.
Director James Bohnen mentions in his program notes that the play, while tackling serious themes, has "the airiness of a meringue." There may be a little too much meringue in the mix, though. It should be stirring to hear Bluntschli declare to Raina that he is "the first man that has ever taken you quite seriously," but Madden's Raina isn't compelling enough a character for that speech to have emotional weight. The actors are all good individually, but the cast never quite gels as a cast. And the two 15-minute intermissions, while lengthening the evening as a social event, disrupt the life of the play too much.
Still, it's hard to turn down such a meringue. Even in a post-"Seinfeld" world, where "no lessons, no hugging" is the new normal, the radical Shaw has great appeal. Lessons, yes; but hugging, not so much.