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A CurtainUp Review
A Walk in the Woods
You may wonder if this play remains relevant in a time when the fate of nations is no longer determined by the give and take of two super powers. Rest assures that it has not only retained its topicality, but also the urgency of its message.
As smartly directed by Jonathan Silverstein, an added dimension is driven by an unapologetically opinionated man in a series of informal meetings with a provocatively conciliatory woman. It makes for a refreshing debate with the negotiators the opposite sex.
The inexperienced slightly arrogant American John Honeyman (Paul Niebanck) has been sent to Geneva to head the United States' arms negotiating team. But, it is not at the negotiating table that he loses the most points with his cynical, testy, and savvier Russian adversary Irina Botvinnik (Kathleen Chalfant) but during their rather long, secluded walks among the Linden trees.
Chalfant, who has remained a formidable dramatic presence since her breakthrough role in Wit covers all the prescribed bases, including a very convincing Russian accent. She also invests her character with a stealthily infused charm. A clever touch for her character is how she uses her occasional need for eye drops as a subtle tool to stop the intensity and flow of conversation at key moments.
It is in the woods, with only a solitary wooden bench used on occasion for comfort, that these two self-determined adversaries confront the complexity and perhaps futility of compromise. The playwright has previously noted that A Walk in the Woods (which won the Best New Play Award from the American Theater Critics Association when it was first produced by the Yale Repertory Theater in 1987) is "loosely connected" to an actual 1982 incident in Geneva when two arms negotiators took "a walk in the woods" to try to reach an agreement.
The play was well received when it opened on Broadway in 1988 with Robert Prosky and Sam Waterston. It has since maintained a healthy life in regional theaters. Gimmick or not, non-traditional casting should only encourage more interest in this absorbing play.
Blessing cleverly uses that remote venue outside of normal bureaucratic channels to isolate two envoys whose ideology, personalities, and visions, both sociological and political, are as disparate as is autumn to spring. We perceive the passage of time and the change of seasons by a few falling leaves, although the profusion of tall, barren one-dimensional trees in designer Scott Bradley's surreal forest setting suggest that the trees, like the peace negotiatiors, have already given all they have to give.
But Blessing's interest is to probe the moral and ethical fiber of these pivotal negotiators. Even if it is inevitable that they turn out to be mere pawns within their paranoid administration's red-tape-filled agencies, the play courageously attempts to idealistically fantasize on a relationship that has failure written all over it.
"You'll like the leaves here, they are very neutral," the Russian diplomat says to the eager-to-get-down-to-business American. Unequivocally condescending in tone, Botvinnik nevertheless seems in earnest when she tells Honeyman, "We are beginning to be friends." To which "what we need is some seriousness" is Honeyman's digressive response. But it is the Russian who is really toying with what appear to be digressions as she blurts out, "So tell me, aren't you embarrassed to be an American? I am, to be a Russian."
It seems Botvinnik longs for an American with whom to be "frivolous." The more Honeyman tries to convey the seriousness of their talks, the more he refuses to let her even breathe words like detente, human rights, star wars, missiles, summit, test ban, and strategic objectives. Botvinnik, who insists that their times in the wood "be trivial," is more intent on finding out if her frustrated opponent likes "country western music."
Without giving away some well negotiated twists and turns, I will admit that having seen the play a number of times, I was able to anticipate the curves that I hope will be a surprise for others. There are some frightening facts restated, however, like "those who make the arms make faster progress than the negotiators," and that "neither of our countries can appear to be second in our quest for peace."
Be forewarned that this play is talky. But when the talk is this good, witty and engaging, you'll want to listen.
Except for the black fur coat she wears in Act II, Chalfant's wardrobe, the work of designers Amanda Jenks and Jennifer Paar, consists of a smartly tailored grey suit that appears to have survived the seasons of negotiations. Staying true to Botvinnik's world-weary and wise temperament, Chalfant, nevertheless, injects a bit of warmth and even empathy into an otherwise biting remark, "A new man with a new plan." In a nutshell, she is splendid as a cagey diplomat who would seemingly rather chase a squirrel than a treaty, but at the same time insist she is a realist.
Niebanck, who I recall gave a terrific performance earlier this season as the town minister in The Devil's Dsciple at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, is now splendidly keeping up his end of the arms negotiations with a sensitive performance as the fastidiously groomed, uptight and occasionally too rational American. For the Keen Company that prides itself in producing "sincere" plays, A Walk in the Woods conforms to this mission with its own and well-earned self-assurance.