Contributor Samuel Leiter revisits Lee Blessing’s political drama in a revival presented by Keen Company.
If you were walking down West 45th Street in the theater district in 1988, you could be forgiven for wondering where the trees were. The Booth was showing Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods, while, a block away at the Martin Beck, Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods was on the boards. Both plays have scary stuff in them, a witch in one and the threat of nuclear annihilation in the other. The characters in Into the Woods have to go on a wide-ranging quest to reach their goals, while the two characters in Blessing’s play, Russian and American nuclear arms negotiators, are on a quest to find common ground between each other.
In the original production, Robert Prosky played Andrey Botvinnik, the Russian, opposite Sam Waterston’s John Honeyman. Keen Company’s current revival, capably directed by Jonathan Silverstein at the Acorn Theatre, has, with Blessing’s blessing and alterations, changed Andrey to Irina (a 2011 London version changed the American to a woman), so that Kathleen Chalfant, at her most elegant, can befuddle and befriend the stiff-necked, no-nonsense Honeyman as they venture into the Geneva woods to talk, off the cuff, about their mission.
The play, inspired by but only very loosely based on a “walk in the woods” taken by negotiators Paul H. Nitze and Yuli A. Kvitsinsky, whose breakthrough agreement was rejected by their leaders, is set in Geneva during some unspecified, ongoing round of talks. Since this isn’t a docudrama and both characters are entirely fictional, what matters is not the specifics of a particular time and place but the way in which negotiators in such high-level talks behave in private. A number of weapons systems names and acronyms get tossed about, but the “tiny points” over which negotiations stumble are not articulated. Blessing is concerned mainly with the human question of what the people who presumably hold the world’s fate in their hands are like and how they handle the pressures on them.
Actually, as we see from the constantly failed negotiations, the negotiators—however wise or crafty—are merely the middlemen in a game whose decisions are made by the mucky mucks in Washington and Moscow. The world situation, then, in A Walk in the Woods, while politically intriguing in the abstract, is essentially neutered, and we enjoy instead seeing the wily Irina play mind games with her American opponent, seeking, to John’s discomfort, to be his friend.
Irina uses all her charisma and humor (she insists they be “frivolous”) in the effort, while he’s too serious to have any fun at all. Their discussions reveal Irina as the cynical realist, and he as the platitudinous idealist. As the seasons pass during the play’s two acts, and the woods turn from summer to autumn to winter to spring, changes—apart from falling foliage—are indicated by the addition or removal of coats. Predictably, the relationship also warms up and, when Irina is relieved of her post, John is dismayed to see her go.
Even without any real specifics regarding the frustrating treaty talks, during which neither side wants to credit the other for any advances, the material had to be much more compelling in 1988 than it is now, when actual treaties are in place and progress has been made between America and post-communist Russia. What frightens us these days is the nuclear arming of Iran, not to mention other untrustworthy nations.
The Russian negotiator in A Walk in the Woods is presented as a sophisticated, cosmopolitan player, concerned with Italian clothing and shoes, as well as American culture, from Mickey Mouse to Babe Ruth. The American seems much more limited, culturally and linguistically (he is mocked when he says he knows “technical Russian,” whatever that is). What, one wonders, would a similar pairing be like between a contemporary American and an Iranian?
The Keen production renders the script on a set by Scott Bradley, unobtrusively lit by Josh Bradford, that relies on theatricalized tree cutouts and a floor carpeted in a semblance of autumn leaves (regardless of the season). Amanda Jenks and Jennifer Paar pair up to provide Mr. Niebanck with well-tailored suits and coats, while Ms. Chalfant wears stylish gray business suits; one of her coats is a floor-length black fur. Sable, perhaps?
As John, Niebanck doesn’t quite justify Irina’s description of him toward the end as “charming,” but apart from a tendency to overdo John’s irritation, he invests energy and thought into the American’s dilemma. The chief reason to see A Walk in the Woods, however, is Chalfant’s Irina, which, while inwardly tough, brings a nice maternal touch (just as Robert Prosky was paternal) to the pleasantly steely negotiator. Just to gaze on her chiseled, perfectly coiffed features is to know this is a woman you can’t fool. For Chalfant alone, a walk to Theatre Row might be in order.
A Walk In The Woods
Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
Through October 18
Samuel L. Leiter is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 26 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his writing, visit http://slleiter.blogspot.com.