Playfully, director Colman Domingo sets George Bernard Shaw’s “romantic comedy in three acts” (as GBS described it) as a sort of play-within-a-play, in which a narrator (an equally exuberant Allen Darby), lolling on his bed and wondering if this pandemic will ever end, happens upon a copy of “Arms and the Man” on his bookshelf and begins to read aloud.
It’s a nifty device, because it allows Darby to reappear throughout the two-hour production, reading some of Shaw’s hyper-detailed and amusing stage directions for this 1894 play, especially the descriptions of the characters.
Those characters — a wealthy Bulgarian family, the Petkoffs (the parents and their pampered daughter); their two servants; the daughter’s fiancé; and a soldier of the recently defeated Serbian army — appear in Zoom boxes in this American Conservatory Theater digital reading, presented with smooth video design by Luis Garcia.
As is his wont, Shaw makes fun of war; creates characters, even the incidental ones, who inevitably reveal unexpected depth of character; and despite some long-winded dialogue, is ever so entertaining.
The play opens in the midst of a vague Balkan war pitting Bulgarians against Serbs. The Petkoff family’s daughter, Raina (Allie Marie Evans), suddenly finds herself harboring, in her boudoir, an escaping enemy combatant, the unflappable Swiss mercenary Captain Bluntschli (Phillip James Brannon). Her father (Danny Scheie) and unfaithful fiancé Sergius (Ariel Shafir), have not yet returned from fighting,
Allegiances get scrambled and chaos erupts when Sergius and Petkoff return, triumphant, and when servant Louka reveals a crucial secret.
The inimitable Scheie’s wickedly cheerful Mr. Petkoff, and Kimberly Hébert Gregory’s fluttery and flouncy Petkoff mother, Catherine, manage to play off each other beautifully even in their separate digital boxes. And Shafir’s self-important, vain and temperamental Sergius is hilarious. Avanthika Srinivasan is wonderfully tough and cynical as the servant Louka and narrator Darby couldn’t be better.
Unfortunately, Evans and Brannon, as the two main characters, seem to be in a different play altogether, bland and rote; Evans in particular is more petulant than anything, and neither changes much in the course of the play.
If the actors aren’t having fun — the constraints of Zoom boxes notwithstanding — it’s not really Shavian comedy. Fortunately most of the cast is having a blast.
American Conservatory Theater’s “Arms and the Man” streams through April 18. Tickets are $5 to $50. Call (415) 749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.
Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts journalist specializing in theater.