Lee Blessing could not have forecast in 1988 that the Cold War would take an abrupt turn for the weird just two years later. ‘A Walk in the Woods’ at ICT through 22 May has nevertheless enjoyed a successful life despite drastic shifts in superpower status and the methods of war. It isn’t surprising. It is easy to look back wistfully at Mutually Assured Destruction as nation states veer on collapse and real power is concentrated in a few hidden hands.
The play’s setup is simple and historically informed – two arms negotiators, veteran Botvinnik and newcomer Honeyman, try to achieve in the Swiss woods what they can’t over the bargaining table. The amiable Russian tries to engineer a friendship, the formal American worries that he’s being worked. That can happen when one’s opponent is the namesake of a legendary Russian grandmaster. The four evenly timed acts alternate between Pythonesque rhetorical posturing (“I came here for an agreement! No you didn’t!”) and moments of genuine connection when it looks like our heroes may have given their masters a face-saving way back from the brink.
This, however, isn’t a documentary or even intrinsically theatrical. Blessing strives for a duet of ideas, some more compelling than others. ‘Walk’ shines when the younger American slowly realizes what his older counterpart has learned: Neither side wants an agreement – MAD is too good for business on both sides of the curtain. The corrosive stalemate on the large scale is recapitulated on the small and all levels in between. The interwoven buddy comedy lives well with Tony Abatemarco (Botvinnik) and David Nevell (Honeyman) under John Henry Davis’s direction on a stark set (Christopher Scott Murillo) and subtle lighting (Donna Ruzika). But, cynics have the advantage in these situations and Blessing’s asymmetrical characterization keeps Honeyman on the back foot until the very end when he figures out that what’s real and what’s virtual in the world of diplomacy.
The monsters in ‘Walk’ are less frightening today than the one in Blessing’s equally popular ‘Going to St. Ives.’ Nations may treat one another poorly but they reserve true brutality for their own. Both have characters doubling as ideologies (and vice versa) reminiscent of Shaw’s theatrical polemics. Although the premise and the balanced characterizations give ‘Ives’ the edge as a play, ‘Walk’ is an evening of theatre worth the trip.
A Walk in the Woods
by Lee Blessing
at International City Theatre
27 April to 22 May 2016
Thu. – Sat. at 8pm
Sun. at 2pm
Long Beach Performing Arts Center
330 East Seaside Way
Long Beach, CA 90802
Tickets: Online and at the Box Office 562-436-4610 (M-F 9am – 5pm)