(l to r) K. Lorrel Manning and Martin Van Treuren in ‘A Walk in the Woods.’ (Photo: Edward T. Morris)
By Samuel L. Leiter
A Walk in the Woods, Lee Blessing’s talky but engrossing drama about a pair of nuclear arms negotiators, an American and a Russian, meeting in Switzerland, premiered on Broadway in 1988, a year before the USSR collapsed. It took until 2014, 26 years later, for the play to gets its first New York revival.
That Off-Broadway production (which I reviewed here) followed others in casting one of the characters—both men in the original—with an actress (Kathleen Chalfant played the Russian), recognizing the increasing presence of women in such powerful positions.
Now, only four years after its last local incarnation, The Barrow Group, cannily aware of the play’s insistent relevance (just read today’s headlines) has revived the play with an African-American (K. Lorrel Manning) as the American, John Honeyman, which is perfectly natural in our increasingly diverse political environment.
A Walk in the Woods was inspired by the story of two actual negotiators whose 1982 walk in the woods resulted in a breakthrough proposal that was rejected by their leaders. It observes the interactions between the worldly-wise, sartorially elegant, gently cynical Andrey Botvinnik (Martin Van Treuren) and the uptight, all-business, linguistically ill-equipped, but determinedly optimistic John.
Set circa 1983, the play begins in late summer, after which come scenes set in the succeeding fall, winter, and spring. In each, the men follow Andrey’s initial suggestion that they chat privately, man to man, at a bench in the Geneva woods.
Andrey is relaxed and convivial, John reluctant and ill at ease as Andrey prods him with personal questions, asking him to be “frivolous” as he seeks to find common ground on which to build a friendship, which John initially considers unnecessary.
While some of the dialogue involves particulars about the arms race, these are mainly background colors for the personal interaction between two highly trained diplomats, each subject to the decisions of his leader in the White House or Kremlin regardless of what they come up with over the negotiating table.
Even the most reasonable outcomes can be quickly quashed for reasons that have nothing to do with their reasonableness. Most crucial are concerns about how a proposal will make one or the other countries look, neither of them wanting to look weak.
Such talks have been going on for years, it’s clear, and, as Andrey is very much aware, the task of reaching mutual approval is nothing short of Sisyphean. It’s enough to make even the most dedicated negotiator feel useless.
My 2014 review suggested that the USA-Russia treaties in place that year made the subject less pressing than in 1988. Recent developments, however—the election meddling, the ejection of 60 Russian diplomats, those Russian hypersonic missiles—make such thinking seem naively wishful. How, one might ask, do Russian and American diplomats, not just those involved in the arms race, relate to each other in today’s climate? Whom can you trust? And can we expect more nuclear rattling?
Under Donna Jean Fogel’s smooth direction, Van Treuren and Manning offer excellent performances, each character providing emotional depth, intellectual nuance, and humorous timing to the conversations.
The distinguished-looking, silver-haired Van Treuren, who uses a light accent, which doesn’t sound particularly Russian, masterfully creates the image of a congenial, well-educated, wryly humorous, Continental sophisticate. He helps provoke far more laughs than I remember even from Chalfant’s fine performance.
The husky Manning, although sometimes guilty of mumbling, is believably uncomfortable about letting his guard down, and makes a perfect foil for Andrey’s witty ribbing. When he finally erupts in frustration, the theatre practically trembles.
Edward T. Morris’s attractively simple setting, delicately lit by Elizabeth Mak, shows a bench placed on a circular platform, an angled slash across the upstage wall depicting a woodsy silhouette, and trees painted on the small auditorium’s walls. Several moments are enacted with someone standing in the aisle.
Kristin Isola’s costumes look like what such diplomats would wear, from Andrey’s well-tailored, well-shod look to John’s more mundane three-piece suit.
Blessing’s play is a rare dramatic treatment of its subject. It illuminates the many complexities—personal and political—involved in nuclear arms negotiations. Without specifically intending to, it helps us appreciate how remarkable it is that the current treaty with Iran was ever signed, however tenuous its future. Similarly, it makes us realize how difficult it will be to solve the Korean crisis, regardless of our own dear leader’s rhetoric.
Still, so much of A Walk in the Woods focuses on the personalities of the Russian and American negotiators, it doesn’t require two hours for its points to be made; 90 minutes would be more than sufficient to prevent it from lapsing into chatty irrelevancies.
I admit being skeptical about the need for this revival so soon after its last one. But true to a great negotiator, I no longer feel that way.
A Walk in the Woods
The Barrow Group
312 W. 36th St., NYC
Through April 15
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).