My, how times have changed. When Lee Blessing first introduced his peace-bartering Democrat John Honeyman 26 years ago in his Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-nominated political play A Walk in the Woods, John was negotiating terms of arms limitation between the United States and Russia. Less than three decades later, a potential nuclear winter seems like child's play in comparison to the threat America's internal Cold War has come to lay in its own backyard. Blessing's sequel play, A View of the Mountains, now making its world premiere with New Jersey Repertory Company, revisits the Reagan-era players that maneuvered through this historic time of political tension and puts them head to head with the latest generation of noble public servants. All it takes is a dash of family drama to send this battle of wills tumbling down the side of Blessing's proverbial mountain.
Since taking his walk in the woods with fellow arms negotiator Andrey Botvinnik, John Honeyman (John Little) has retired to a country home along the Hudson with his second wife, Isla (Katrina Ferguson), and their teenage son, Andrey (played by Jared Rush at the reviewed performance) — namesake of his Russian chum. John has invited his first-born, son Will (Michael Zlabinger), and his wife, Gwynn (Eva Kaminsky), to pay a visit to his beautiful home overlooking the mountains (the name of which escapes the characters). This visit comes after decades of estrangement, which, at the very top of the play, John flatly attributes to a classic case of "absentee father." This unemotional diagnosis goes beyond a simple family rift and veers into an unabashed mutual hatred between father and son. Why the sudden gracious invitation then? Because, as the handshaking photo ops splashed over the front page of The New York Times have taught us, that's how gentlemen of politics do business.
In a show of rebellion against his father's political ideals, Will has joined the ranks of Tea Party Republicans, making a name for himself in the public eye as the junior senator from Tennessee and a soon-to-be vice-presidential candidate. Costume designer Patricia E. Doherty has buttoned him up in a finely tailored suit, finished off with the obligatory red tie. Zlabinger pulls out his southern, baby-kissing charm for Blessing's paradigmatic character, matching his silken manner of speech to his smoothly shaven face and perfectly slicked hair. Kaminsky goes beyond paradigm into the realm of caricature in her portrayal of Will's wife, Gwynn. She is an emotionless political shark who has tied herself to a convenient business marriage— an image with which women in politics are all too often unfairly saddled. She gathers samples from her hosts' food display to check for poison, talks coldly about her two adopted Asian children, and concludes from Andrey's video game of choice that he's sure to make a good drone pilot.
As the not-so-pleasant pleasantries of Will and Gwynn's arrival draw to a close, the women are sent away to talk while the men conduct their business. Unbeknownst to Will, John has proof of a career-breaking secret from his son's past, which, on the eve of Will's national political debut, his father decides to use as leverage to ruthlessly shove him out of politics once and for all.
Blessing's script has its moments of insight into today's unwaveringly bipartisan political environment, peppered with scandals that rotate through the 24-hour news cycle. Director Evan Bergman, however, gives the play an unnecessarily heavy-handed treatment, dehumanizing the already-exaggerated cast of characters that lend their dichotomous voices to these two parties' respective soap boxes. Even as John and Will rehash their tumultuous family dynamic, Little and Zlabinger maintain their cold business rapport, showing no cracks of father-son emotion through their polished veneers. Their identities are party-deep, revealing little beyond the donkey and elephant cartoons we always see engaged in heated debates on MSNBC or Fox News. Their spouses equally toe their party lines: Isla, in a picturesquely liberal manner, saunters around her property in her free-flowing ensemble as Gwynn, donning a conservative pants suit, manically gloats about Isla's past romance with an Iranian religious zealot (not to reinforce any unhealthy stereotypes).
Once the details of Will's secret are gradually revealed to all present company, the group devolves into all-out chaos, God of Carnage-style, though the absence of subtlety throughout the play's early rounds drains this climax of its potentially explosive power and humor. Blessing does send us on our way with a few poignant thoughts to mull over during our next fight with a political rival. Unfortunately, this sudden motivation to reach across the aisle fades as quickly as it does the morning after a National Convention.
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