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Theatre in Review: A Walk in the Woods (The Barrow Group)

K. Lorrel Manning, Martin Van Treuren. Photo: Edward T. Morris

I never thought I'd say this, but I'm getting nostalgic for the Cold War. Well, almost: Of course, during those years, there was a good chance that the world would be blown to bits -- but, really, the rules of engagement were clear, and, in some weird way, the two global superpowers understood each other. If we lived on the brink of annihilation, we somehow managed not to tip into the abyss. Of course, it was an unsustainable situation, but a quick consideration of today's world, with its rogue's gallery of bad actors representing a smorgasbord of ideologies running wild and a White House that issues contradictory policy statements hourly -- well, Leonid Brezhnev doesn't look quite so bad, does he?

Such thoughts went through my mind at A Walk in the Woods, a play about what happens when sworn enemies face off across a conference table. Lee Blessing's comic drama -- a faintly Beckettian vaudeville designed to contemplate the uses of inertia -- was considered pretty mild when it opened on Broadway in the peak perestroika year of 1988, and time has not sharpened its impact. But one can appreciate the play's wit as well as its clear-eyed assessment of a process that, ultimately, becomes an end in itself. Blessing's antagonists are so civilized, so well-spoken, that the era of the US-Soviet rivalry seems, in retrospect, rosy indeed.

This two-hander consists of four private discussions -- one for each season of the year -- between Andrey Botvinnik and John Honeyman, arms negotiators; to get away from public posturing and prying reporters, they take little breaks from their Geneva conference table, each trying to take the measure of the other. Of course, they have different agendas: John, new to the job, hopes that, in private, they can break the current deadlock, which has existed for months; Andrey, an old hand, practiced at the art of deflection, runs conversational rings around him. Hearing that John's predecessor has taken a job outside of government, Andrey sighs, "The private sector! Wonderful thing you Americans have. To think -- a refuge from government service." He adds that the fellow "always sat straight up. For two years, he never relaxed. He felt it gave him a moral advantage. It didn't. He looked like a dog waiting for his supper." Confidentially, Andrey adds, the blame for so many fruitless negotiations rests firmly with Switzerland: "We sit across the table and look very grave and talk and debate and argue about imminent world destruction. Then we leave the table and go outside, and what do we see? Rich, happy, peaceful people. Unharmed buildings, no barricades, no rifles, not even littering. We breathe air that hasn't known a war in centuries. Suddenly, things look better. Why agree to a treaty now?"

Martin Van Treuren, who plays Andrey, handles these arguments with silken assurance, earning all sorts of laughs as he evades John's proposals with a comment on the American's suit, or his shoes, or the thread that sits, irritatingly, on his sleeve. He makes Andrey into an aging lion, stretching in the sun and basking in a precious few minutes of freedom from offers and counteroffers, all of which he knows will be rejected. His skill at puncturing a serious question with a sigh and a couple of lazily delivered words is a delight to experience; you can easily see how Andrey drives the earnest, irony-free John around the bend. Or you could, if K. Lorrel Manning's delivery wasn't so flat and uninflected, his manner so lacking in urgency. The play's fundamental drive comes from John, a dog worrying a most unpromising bone, who constantly pushes Andrey to make a settlement. If we don't feel John constantly pressing for a deal, there is no underlying tension and the play's comedy is compromised.

There's another, deeper problem locked into the script: The arguments in A Walk in the Woods are necessarily circular, as John comes to understand that neither side really wants an agreement, that he and Andrey are soldiers in a kind of proxy war; their meetings certainly don't impede the buildup of arms -- but, as long as they are engaged, it just might keep the unthinkable from happening. It's the myth of Sisyphus all over again, spiked with the specter of nuclear disaster. And it demands a kind of feint-and-parry that gets a bit wearying when, for the umpteenth time, John makes his plea and Andrey artfully dodges it.

Still, if A Walk in the Woods can't reach a satisfactory conclusion, if it ultimately ends up chasing its own tail, Donna Jean Fogel's production benefits from Van Treuren's sly characterization and the contributions of the design team. Edward T. Morris' set is a spare, elegant creation: a bench sitting on a raised circular stage in front of a curved, backlit backdrop depicting tree branches. Elizabeth Mak's lighting creates four distinct sunlight washes, based on the time of year. Kristin Isola's costumes show a deep understanding of the suits worn by high-level government bureaucrats. Matt Otto's sound design fills the scene changes with pleasant piano ├ętudes.

And Blessing has infused the proceedings with a wintry wit, a sense of resignation that grounds the characters' exchanges in a lived reality. There's also something genuinely touching in John's argument -- which Andrey doesn't deny -- that their "special handicap as negotiators" is that each of them has a conscience. "Do you think the next two men in here will have a conscience?" John wonders. I'm afraid the answer to that question is as plain as day. -- David Barbour

(29 March 2018)

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