When Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods opened in 1988 at the Lucille Lortel Theater and then moved to Broadway, Ronald Reagan was President and the Soviet Union had not yet collapsed. Blessing’s two-character play about a Russian and an American diplomat discussing arms reduction in a series of meetings in Geneva was fresh and timely—and splendidly acted by Sam Waterston and Robert Prosky.
The play is formally structured in four parts, each scene taking place in a season. It also represents not only the meeting of two opposing governments, but also of two men who are temperamentally and stylistically opposites. John Honeyman, the American, is young, brash, eager to make a name for himself after a series of diplomatic successes on a lower level. Andrey Botvinnik, the Soviet, is gray-haired, jaded, cynical and enervated by years of seeing well-structured treaties undermined by politicians.
As a study in opposites, Blessing’s play still works; in fact, it has proven adaptable as times change. In a superb production by the Keen Company in 2015, Kathleen Chalfant undertook Botvinnik in a bit of gender-blind casting. (Paul Niebanck was Honeyman.) The Barrow Group’s production restores the sex of the characters, but it is race-blind instead, with K. Lorrel Manning as the American functionary, and Martin Van Treuren as the suave Russian. Blessing took his inspiration from a real-life meeting at peace talks in Geneva in 1982, when the American Paul Nitze took a walk in the woods with his Soviet counterpart Yuli Kvitsinsky and hammered out a deal.
In the play, Botvinnik has persuaded Honeyman to take the walk—the woods are evoked in Edward T. Morris’s simple but inventive design by a hanging curved frame containing a carved cutout of trees back by a scrim and, lighted evocatively through the seasons by Elizabeth Mak, looking like a colored silhouette of a birch forest (the walls of the space are painted with a white tree in silhouette.) They plant themselves on a bench in the park, and their maneuvering begins.
Botvinnik is a clothes horse—he prefers Italian suits and shoes—while Honeyman prefers British tailoring. Botvinnik continually refers to Honeyman as his friend, and Honeyman bridles at it. “I am here to make a treaty with you, not a friendship,” he says with some exasperation.
Blessing’s portrait of two clear-eyed negotiators jockeying feels psychologically sound, but he also provides some choice aperçus as well, mostly for the Russian. “Formality is simply anger with its hair combed,” says the sanguine Botvinnik. And later, he notes, “Without nuclear weapons we will be nothing more than a rich, powerful Canada and an enormous Poland.” Van Treuren plays the canny Botvinnik as someone who has cultivated restraint and patience over a lifetime. For his part, Manning’s Honeyman is brash, impatient and idealistic: “Idealism is no longer a choice for mankind. It’s a necessity,” he tells Andrey. “We have to find whatever crumbs of pure, good will exist in us.”
The structure of opposites clashing yet coming to some understanding is as old as The Odd Couple or Two for the Seesaw or Talley’s Folly, and a huge showcase for its actors. Unfortunately, at the performance I attended, a rogue fire alarm emptied the theater and put the audience on the street for 10 minutes. It was to be expected that the actors may have been unsettled by it, but even before the alarm sounded there were a few dialogue stumbles. Manning, too, plays a dour character and hasn’t quite found a way to make him as interesting as Botvinnik is initially, although eventually his Honeyman achieves parity. That sort of thing should be smoothed out pretty quickly.
One suspects that the Barrow Group production, directed by Donna Jean Fogel, was planned because of a resurgence of concerns about nuclear war in the current political climate. But it now feels just as much like a celebration of the foreign-service professionals who devote their lives to negotiating the best results for their countries no matter who is in office.
The Barrow Group Theatre Company production of A Walk in the Woods runs through April 15 at the Main Stage Theater (312 West 36th St., 3rd floor). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Monday and Thursday through Saturday, and at 7 p.m. on Sunday. For tickets and information, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit barrowgroup.org.