Review: “Arms and the Man” Musters Mirth at the Guthrie

A charming period piece makes light work of Shaw’s heavy philosophy

The comedic firepower onstage at the Guthrie Theater in Arms and the Man, which opened Friday to a who’s who crowd including former Vice President Walter Mondale and his wife, Joan, could blow the roof off the big blue building: Peter Michael Goetz, Jim Lichtscheidl, Michael Shantz—all ridiculously draped with period military costuming and armed with the wit of George Bernard Shaw. But an igniting spark never quite flies.

Arms was Shaw’s farcial take-down of 19th-century notions of idealism, pointing out the irrationality and sometimes even inhumanity of blind adherence to ideals of honor, courage, and fidelity. Goetz is the clueless Major Petzkoff, a paterfamilias of 19th-century Bulgarian bourgeoisie and a typically blithe sender of men to their deaths in the endless European wars. Michael Shantz is a spotlight-stealer as a blindly patriotic officer. And Jim Lichtscheidl proves why he’s the best comic actor in the Twin Cities as Major Bluntschli, a mercenary who happens to be the only levelheaded one in the bunch—and Shantz’s competition for the hand of Petzkoff’s spoiled daughter.

But as this production makes clear, times have changed since Shaw’s day, most notably of course in the way we talk (or text)—Shaw’s pointedly high-flown language, full of whilsts and whithers, feels almost Shakespearean in its antiquation and doesn’t feel bound to class so much anymore as simply a bygone era. And notions of honor may have fled the scene with Colonel Oliver North in the Iran-Contra affair, though it was always a more Old World than American concept.

All of this conspires to give the play a museum quality, which the production works hard and smartly to overcome. Director Ethan McSweeney, who led a memorably modern take on Romeo & Juliet at the Guthrie a few years back, is the guy to call when you’ve unearthed an artifact you need updated. Here, he injects contemporary expressions and hilarious interlude the way a jazz drummer works around the edges of phrasing (the clever faux intermission between the first and second acts, in which the actors break the fourth wall to dance and clown for the audience, is particularly inspired).

The actors are game enough, too: Mariko Nakasone is the perfect picture of dewy naïve charm as the daughter of privilege (if any man watching her doesn’t become nostalgic for his 20s, he isn’t paying attention). And Lichtscheidl, the calm amid the family’s self-inflicted storm, here resembles Paul Giamatti at his most humanely intelligent and attractive.

But ultimately the business feels like a minor play shined up and pushed into the spotlight. Certainly, even in this country, we still have problems—big problems—with ideologies crowding out critical thinking, of the sort that leads to, say, President George W. Bush or Congresswoman Michele Bachmann getting credit for being “unwavering” in their viewpoints when a little flexibility would go a long way. But the actors haven’t been handed the kind of daggers of wit, nor heavy fusillades of argument, that would stir a crowd to revelation or bring it to its feet. They have instead been armed with just enough charm to make for an engaging night at the theater.