From Gorbachev to Putin, A Walk in the Woods Looks Just the Same
The Barrow Group revives Lee Blessing's Cold War-era two-hander.
When Lee Blessing's A Walk in the Woods premiered in 1987, the US was in the thick of Cold War tensions, trying to negotiate its way out of nuclear Armageddon with the USSR. Thirty years have passed, and here we are again, at a standoff with Russian cyber attackers and one impulsive Tweet away from nuclear war with North Korea. If the play's meditation on the futility of diplomacy wasn't already disillusioning, the Barrow Group production, now running on the company's mainstage, only reminds us how long we've been waiting for Godot under the same tree.
As Blessing's play asserts from the start, diplomacy is primarily the art of posturing — not a sincere attempt at change. For the two diplomats of conscience we follow over the course of several strolls (a premise inspired by the 1982 negotiations between Paul H. Nitze and Yuli A. Kvitsinsky), this means peaks and valleys of hope and frustration. For the audience, however, it's a much more ambling experience.
Our journey begins and ends in Swiss woods on the outskirts of Geneva (scenic designer Edward T. Morris creating a silhouette of trees to fill out the background). US negotiator John Honeyman and Soviet diplomat Andrey Botvinnik have retreated from reporters and political officials for a more informal discussion about a recent American disarmament proposal. Botvinnik (Martin Van Treuren) is a charming jokester who prefers social conversation to political talk. Honeyman (K. Lorrel Manning) is a buttoned-up, results-oriented professional, who, to quote every reality show villain, isn't here to make friends.
Both their temperaments and their nations of origin make them unlikely allies. And yet, the expectedly unexpected happens: Honeyman softens to Botvinnik's jovial ways, and Botvinnik makes a genuine attempt to move the political needle in his country. Unfortunately, this all plays out at the dramatic volume of an abandoned forest. We're told Botvinnik has failed to budge on a "tiny point" of the proposal, but what that point is remains a mystery. Every conversation hovers at the surface, never diving into the specifics of what these two men are actually trying to achieve (the business attire designed by Kristin Isola remaining in equally generic territory).
Perhaps this was Blessing's attempt to not bore us with the logistical details of disarmament treaties, but if J.T. Rogers's Oslo (the 2017 Tony-winning Best Play) taught us anything, it's that even the most granular negotiations between Israel and Palestine can be suspenseful if they're dramatized well.
The burden, consequently, falls to the actors and director to add detail and moments of tension to Botvinnik and Honeyman's baggy conversations. Unfortunately, none of the artists involved in the Barrow Group production seem to be making any bold choices with the text. Van Treuren delivers a fine rendition of the playful and idiosyncratic Botvinnik opposite Manning's unflappable down-to-business Honeyman. But the character development stops there, as does the ebb and flow of their relationship, which, under Donna Jean Fogel's direction, feels largely stagnant.
Considering the play's rejuvenated relevance, now more than ever would be the time to infuse A Walk in the Woods with renewed vitality. Granted, Blessing spends two hours illustrating just how our political system spins its wheels while moving nowhere. But that's no excuse for the play depicting that system to be equally inert.