The playwright George Bernard Shaw did not craft subtle plots. That's clear from the first minutes of his anti-militarism comedy Arms and the Man, in which Bluntschli, a Swiss mercenary, crashes through a stranger's window after fleeing a battle in the Serbo-Bulgarian War. Sleep-deprived and grubby, he begs the room's beautiful young Bulgarian occupant, Raina, to hide him. Moments earlier, she'd been shrieking delightedly about the military heroics of her fiancé, but she agrees to conceal this coward. Then, upon learning he's the sort of soldier who carries an unloaded gun and crams his pockets not with cartridges but with chocolates, she fortifies him with a box of chocolate creams.
From there, Arms and the Man shatters far more than a single window. Shaw, who was a pacifist and socialist, debunks not only romantic illusions of war, but also the hypocrisy of class differences, the immorality of keeping servants and the posturing xenophobia of patriotism. It's a systematic, satirical takedown, stacked with biting one-liners. This Northwest Classical Theatre Company production, directed by Alana Byington, turns in numerous crowd-pleasing moments by focusing on Shaw's pithy witticisms. But Arms is a deceptively difficult play, requiring director and cast to balance frivolity, didacticism and irony, and it's in this juggling act that the production sometimes stumbles.
As Bluntschli, Jason Maniccia is appropriately levelheaded and practical. In contrast, the prideful Raina (Brenan Dwyer) goes about with "noble attitude and thrilling voice," pointing out her family's library and daily hand-washing habits as evidence of their sophistication. Dwyer overplays a bit, but turns in one of the show's funniest moments when she sits on Bluntschli's revolver and emits a quavery yelp.
Other characters are more outsize, namely Sergius (Tom Mounsey), Raina's blustery buffoon of a fiancé. Though Bluntschli is Shaw's voice of reason, he gave Sergius many of the punchiest lines, both serious ("Soldiering, my dear madam, is the coward's art of attacking mercilessly when you are strong, and keeping out of harm's way when you are weak") and droll ("I could no more fight with you than I could make love to an ugly woman"). But with a cast that walks a fine and sometimes clumsy line between naturalism and caricature, these lines feel more like Russell Stover candies than like fine Swiss chocolates: They might provide a quick kick of flavor, but the delight is unlikely to linger for long.