George Bernard Shaw had a neat response for those critics who thought his plays were talky affairs full of nothing but words. "My plays were all words," he pronounced, "as Raphael's paintings are all paint."

As fond as Shaw was of words in general, it was the last word he valued the most, and after Arms and the Man was produced in 1894, he almost always got it.

This charming, disarming comedy, the first of Shaw's plays to see the stage, launched the former music and drama critic onto the most illustrious theatrical career of the 20th century. Like Samuel Johnson and Oscar Wilde, Shaw's personal fame eventually outstripped his literary fame, and during his long life he became almost a mythical figure. It wasn't that much of a reach, in fact, when an early biographer entitled his look at Shaw's life The Man of the Century. Shaw's only serious competition for the title at midcentury was thought to be Winston Churchill.

Without Shaw around to run his own publicity machine, however, the playwright's fame has diminished considerably. Besides, this is no longer the sort of world that a mere dramatist or poet is going to bestride like a colossus--not with talents like Michael Jackson and Madonna around.

Instead, Shaw has been lumped among the "vegetable writers"--the ones who are good for you but boring.

It's a bum rap, as Arms and the Man proves. The play is frothy, funny, and fast-paced, something like a Gilbert and Sullivan comedy without the music.

The story concerns Bluntschli, a mercenary on the lam from the Serbian army which has just been routed by Bulgarian forces during the now largely forgotten Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1895. Bluntschli clambers up a pipe and into the bedroom of the daughter of a Bulgarian nobleman in order to escape pursuing Bulgarian troops. The daughter, Raina, allows him to hide in her room and elude capture. Complications ensue when both Raina's fiance, Sergius, and Bluntschli return after the war to vie for Raina's affections.

Shaw is cannonading two conventions here, romanticized love and romanticized war. He's also commenting on a phenomenon of the time, the emergence of the "New Woman," a more independent, intelligent, and action-oriented female than Victorians were used to or generally comfortable with.

The satire and social commentary are accomplished through Shaw's famous reversals. For example, the best soldier in the play is unquestionably Bluntschli, ironically a native of traditionally pacifist Switzerland. Sergius, the war hero and "parfait knight," is really a libertine who leers at the female working staff. Louka, the maid, is the least subservient character in the play, while Raina, an idealist devoted to "higher love," is a closet realist itching for release from the tiresome pose she has adopted.

The reversals are accompanied by Shaw's lancing wit ("My method," he wrote, "is to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity"), and by enough characterization and plot twists to allow you to forget that this is a play of ideas.

Director Jonathan Moscone, artistic associate at the Dallas Theater Center, does an admirable job of allowing the sweet cream in this play to rise to the top. He gets a big assist from set designer Neil Patel and costume designer Katherine B. Roth. The DTC pretty much dares you to find a flaw in its set and costume design, and it's not easy to do.

Patel's sets feature Raina's lushly romantic bedroom, with its balcony view of the stars, in Act 1, and a garden scene in Act 2 that reveals a mountain tableau with a river of real flowing water in the foreground. (At least one doubting Thomas in the audience felt compelled to touch the latter to confirm that it was genuine H2O). Act 3 concludes with a library scene in which Patel suggests Near Eastern opulence with only the barest of props. The one drawback to the witty and romantic stage design is its placement in the cavernous Arts District Theatre. This space, with its high-school-gym bleachers and its susceptibility to ambient airplane noises, tends to undercut DTC's stylish and professional staging.

Moscone has assembled the DTC's usual blend of local and out-of-town acting talent, to uniformly good effect. Geoffrey Owens, who appeared as Elvin on The Cosby Show, plays the fish-out-of-water Bluntschli. In the space of about 20 minutes, that role calls for Owens to express panic, desperation, doomed resolve, giddiness, contempt, infantilism, hunger, delirium, and finally, exhaustion, all of which he does with deft and well-honed comic timing.

Owens is even better in Acts 2 and 3, however, in which Bluntschli reveals himself to be an exasperatingly bland, self-effacing, and prosaic hero. With his stolid, shopkeeper's appearance and deliberately untheatrical body language, Owens is like a gray, officious owl in a cage full of peacocks.

The most gilded peacock here is Matt Bradford Sullivan as the pompous war hero, Sergius. Much of the comic mileage in the play derives from Sergius' unmasking, and from his and Raina's realization that both they and the world are less romantic but more interesting than they formerly thought. In conveying Sergius' self-reverential style, Sullivan scores a nice actor's coup: arrogant hair. By play's end, you'd like to take a tomahawk to it.

Norman Browning, fresh from his terrific performance in DTC's The Sternheim Project, plays Petkoff, Raina's gruff but benign dad. It was largely this role that caused Bulgarian students in Vienna to riot in protest when the play was performed there in 1921. Shaw knew little about Bulgaria--he was more interested in the England of his day--and he depicts the country as being like a semicivilized English suburb, where books are barely available (and never read) and where even the gentry can't be compelled to wash more than once a week. Browning, a large, ambling actor with a grizzled mug, wields a big comic presence, which serves him well as Petkoff.

Arms and the Man is in some ways a period piece, as society is slightly less romantic about war, and considerably less romantic about love, than it used to be. As for the "New Woman," a lot of people would like to put her back in the bottle from whence Shaw and others helped draw her. Still, there's no harm in a period piece if the period is pleasant, and with Shaw at his lightest you won't find many periods more pleasant than this one.

Arms and the Man runs through March 10 at the Arts District Theatre. Call 922-0427.

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P.b. Miller

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