Review: Russian-American Relations Are Revisited In a Timely Revival of ‘A Walk In the Woods’ by the Barrow Group
By Justin Sharon, Contributing Writer, March 27, 2018
From Into the Woods on the Great White Way to Great Birnam wood in “The Scottish Play,” theatrical history is thick with forests. To this worthy cannon we can add A Walk in the Woods, Lee Blessing’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-nominated work three decades old yet still fresh as a daisy. The drama takes as its inspiration an actual event that occurred in the early ’80s when an American arms control negotiator and his Soviet counterpart went rogue on a mountain slope surrounding Geneva. Veering off from their carefully prepared talking points, the pair proceeded to thrash out a framework for limiting nuclear warheads, only for higher-ups to nix and nyet the proposal.
The action is described as taking place ‘During the end of the Cold War.’ (That the conflict concluded a generation ago is evidently news to the 60 Russians expelled by the U.S. only hours before the iron curtain went up on opening night.) Our twin protagonists are American mediator John Honeyman, portrayed by K. Lorrel Manning, and Andrey Botvinnik, a lifelong diplomat from the USSR played by Martin Van Treuren. The duo are a study in contrasts. Honeyman describes himself as a “stiff and serious person,” somewhat schlumpy in his English suit and brown shoes. Botvinnik by contrast is the Gordon Gekko of Gorky Park, all natty suspenders, pocket squares, and silk scarfs.
Fifteen minutes into the performance I attended, a series of strange beeps started emanating from offstage. Audience members looked at each other quizzically, unsure if it was part of the plot or not. The actors gamely soldiered on for spell, before the entire theater was evacuated for a fire alert that brought five of New York’s Bravest on the scene in no time. A false alarm, as it turned out — much like an infamous error involving Moscow’s nuclear early-warning system in the same year the play portrays. Art inadvertently imitating life, as it were.
The unscripted break seemed to free the actors from a slightly tentative start. Van Treuren’s character enjoyed the best bon mots of a clever script, delivering lines like “Formality is simply anger with its hair combed” in an impressively authentic accent that wisely eschewed any hint of Yakov Smirnoff caricature. His depiction of the wily and cynical man from Leningrad made an effective foil for Manning’s more earnest Midwestern sensibilities. As the play spooled through each of the four seasons, it was fascinating to watch the arc of their relationship evolve from adversaries eyeing each other warily to something approaching genuine affection. We also feel the poignancy of a situation in which, hard though they try to achieve a breakthrough, the diplomatic duo are destined always to be mere instruments of policy. Any recommendations they make are ultimately at the mercy of their leaders’ whims.
The action, with one notable second act exception, is more understated than animated. Such a restrained approach feels appropriate for a play that is, after all, about the nuances of diplomacy. The spare set, simplicity itself consisting of only tree silhouettes, chirping birds, and fallen leaves, puts our focus firmly on the performers.
Sticklers for accuracy may quibble with some finer points of the script. Repeated references to a U.S. election “five weeks from now” is anachronistic in a play set in 1983, an-off year in which neither Congress nor the White House faced the voters. Talk of “the new openness” in Red Square doesn’t square with the reality that Gorbachev’s ‘Glasnost’ remained fully two years away. And notwithstanding the title, precious little actual walking takes place in the play. Wanderings are instead confined to the strictly conversational kind, with essentially all of the action unfolding on an outdoor bench.
Still, the production compellingly recreates an alphabet soup epoch of SALT and START and SDI. Debuting in the same week that The Americans returns to our TV screens for its final season, it taps into our ongoing nostalgia for an era that was oddly safer than our own. As I left the theater, a sign beside the door read: “To Exit You Must Press The Red Button.” Thanks to scores of long-forgotten bureaucrats like Manning and Botvinnik, the nuclear button remained mercifully unpressed.
A Walk in the Woods presented by The Barrow Group at The Barrow Group Mainstage Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, 3rd Floor, through April 15, 2018. Running time is approximately two hours with one intermission. Written by Lee Blessing. Directed by Donna Jean (DJ) Fogel; scenic design by Edward T. Morris; costume design by Kristin Isola; lighting design by Elizabeth Mak; sound design by Matt Otto; production stage manager: Allison Raynes. Cast: K. Lorrel Manning and Martin Van Treuren.
Cover: (l. to r.) K. Lorrel Manning and Martin Van Treuren in ‘A Walk in the Woods;’ photo: Edward T. Morris.