It defies imagination that two hours listening to two people talking about arms negotiations could be watchable, let alone highly engaging. But playwright Lee Blessing has a keen insight into human nature and a benevolence towards actual humans which makes the unfolding of this seemingly undramatic story riveting. His story is also political without being politicized—a distinction I hope other playwrights will note.
The play's events were inspired by a real incident in 1982: two arms negotiators—one Soviet, one American—leave the table to take a walk in the woods. Their walks lead to a compromise that could put the brakes on the arms race. But can each of them persuade their respective leaders to sign?
Blessing wrote this play in response to an editorial in The New York Times challenging playwrights to tackle political topics. Although he had never ventured into politics before, he had a leg up because of an extensive tour of the Soviet Union, which gave him insights into the ways of the Russians.
Blessing’s fictionalization of the event brings to life two complex and enormously different personalities. The Russian hides his cynicism and wiliness under a hearty warmth and love of nature. The American hides his idealism and passion under a stiff formality.
The dialogue is witty and well-paced, seguing easily from deadly serious to lightly comic to winsomely sentimental, keeping the audience rapt.
And although arms negotiations—between two superpowers capable of annihilating one another—provides the backdrop, the real story here concerns the forging of a friendship under stressful, high-stakes circumstances, and in the context of profound cultural differences. It brings up questions such as: “Can enemies be friends?” and “How much should I trust?”
The success or failure of this two-hander lies almost entirely with the actors, of course. Both deliver, and then some. J. Todd Adams as American John Honeyman embodies uptightness in his every gesture and word, yet his outstanding acting choices create a sympathetic and noble character out of one who easily could have been off-putting.
David Ellenstein as Andrey Botvinnik is completely believable not just as a Russian negotiator, but as a fully-realized human being. For those of us who straddle the audience/actor divide, it was like being at a Master Class in stage acting. All other excellences aside, it is worth seeing this show just for his performance.
The theater space is well-suited to this intimate production. The set, however, disappoints, its crudity not communicating “nature” or “forest,” but rather the rigidity and artifice of the negotiating table that they went on this walk to escape. The score likewise added nothing, despite being written by the original composer.
But these are quibbles. Don’t miss this production.
- A Walk in the Woods, by Lee Blessing
- North Coast Rep, 987 Lomas Santa Fe, Suite D, Solana Beach, CA 92075
- Directed by Richard Baird, cast: David Ellenstein (Andrey Botvinnik), J. Todd Adams (John Honeyman); set design, Marty Burnett; light design: Matt Novotny; costume Design: Elisa Benzoni; sound design: Aaron Rumley; Prop Design: Phillip Korth; original music: Michael Roth; guitarist: Peter Sprague; stage manager: Aaron Rumley
- Playing through June 23