ARMS AND THE MAN
Seattle Center, Intiman Theater, 269-1900, $10- $42 7:30 p.m. Sun. and Tues.- Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.- Sat.; 2 p.m. matinees Sat.- Sun. ends Sat., June 8
WHEN A FRUSTRATED woman screams at a man, "I wish I had never met you!" you know she's in love. Arms and the Man, George Bernard Shaw's incisive romantic comedy, which opened last week at the Intiman, has a lot more than love going for it, but director Bartlett Sher's production is better with the sweet conventions of the genre than it is with the tart undertaste just beneath them.
Raina Petkoff (Margaret Welsh) is a naive, wealthy young woman in war-torn 19th-century Bulgaria, thrilled by the sound of gunshots and betrothed to puffed-up Maj. Sergius (Andrew Weems, hamming himself red in the face). She's awakened to the realities of both love and war by the entrance of Captain Bluntschli (John Procaccino) through her bedroom window; he's a Serb-friendly Swiss escaping the victorious Bulgarian army and content to carry chocolates rather than bullets for survival.
Shaw had a genius for slicing through the thick-headed pretensions that shape people's ideas of themselves in the world. "Everything I think is mocked by everything I do," Sergius moans, caught in a clinch with servant girl Louka (a cagey, beguiling Mari Nelson). That basic human befuddlement is layered here with rich comment on class and so-called culture; Raina, her family, and their servants are mucking through what to make of one another and what should really be considered important in a tumultuous time. That all this is entertaining is simply Shaw's frosting.
Sher's staging has fine frosting itself. Deb Trout has scrupulously fitted the cast in some divine period costume, and set designer Edie Whitsett makes the world they roam clean and lovely. The evening beams with Sher's proud excitement at laying the treasures of a classic to glitter at your feet.
For the first time, however, you may feel that he's having too much fun reintroducing us to an old friend, working hard and fast to convince us that Shaw need not be the dry-witted curmudgeon some audiences fear he is. It's a happy show—a clear, bright, sunny day onstage—but too much of it is covered in shtick. You're distracted from the piercing intellect by the company's physical comedy and engaging eye-rolling.
And Procaccino's performance in the central role is a problem. Bluntschli needs to be a shaggy contrast to his stiff surroundings, but Procaccino can't forge something solid out of his loose-limbed resources. His affable attempt at world-weariness reads as put-on as his sporadic accent, he fumbles the few lines of pure wooing that Shaw provides, and he has no chemistry with the delectable Welsh (who's pitch perfect and utterly charming).
Everything settles somewhat by Act III, and the show finally growls like the funny and adult and contemplative tiger it should be. The show is enjoyable but mostly lacking that bite.