On August 27, 1928, the United States, along with France, Germany, Italy, Japan and many other countries, entered into the Kellogg-Briand Pact. This treaty outlawed aggressive war and the use of war as an instrument of national policy. Henceforth, the signers agreed, they would fight only defensive wars.
How’d that work out?
Idealists, like the American John Honeyman (Anthony van Eyck) have a role in the Kabuki play that is arms negotiation: they set up the punch lines. In Lee Blessing’s brilliant meditation on superpower horse-trading, A Walk in the Woods, Honeyman sets the table for his cynical, jaded Soviet counterpart, Andrey Botvinnik (Jeff Baker), and Botvinnik delivers.
Botvinnik, like many cynics and almost all diplomats, is absolutely charming, and he takes an almost childish interest in American baseball, cowboys, Mickey Mouse – indeed, virtually everything except arms control. He loves his walks with Honeyman through the beautiful Swiss woods where, he hopes, he can make Honeyman his friend. Friendship with his American counterpart, Botvinnik believes, is much more likely than meaningful arms control.
Honeyman, who appears to be a policy guy with some diplomatic experience rather than a full-fledged diplomat, is Botvinnik’s opposite. He is relentlessly serious about his mission, and also about everything else. Botvinnik’s pastoral rambles, and rambling conversation, drive him to head-banging frustration. Honeyman truly believes that he and Botvinnik can reach an arms agreement which their governments will support and which will lead to lasting peace. Botvinnik does not. One of them will be surprised. Not to give anything away, but it isn’t Botvinnik.
Blessing, of course, could not imagine that the arms race would be resolved by the collapse of the Soviet Union only a few years after his play was first produced, but his lessons are transferable: no matter how high the stakes are, where failure seems institutionalized, it probably is serving somebody’s agenda.
The American Ensemble Theater’s production of this witty and profound piece of work – the company’s maiden full production – does it full justice. Baker, who was so good as Sigmund Freud in Rep Stage’s Hysteria, is marvelous as Botvinnik, a role first played by the late, great Robert Prosky. Baker makes Botvinnik cynical, of course, but he makes him full of joy as well. Van Eyck plays off him beautifully. His Honeyman is dour and self-righteous, but his desire for peace is genuine. Van Eyck allows us to see not only Honeyman’s relentless dedication to what he believes is his mission, but also to see why he is so animated by his vision of an arms control breakthrough. This is first-rate work (including the clean, uncomplicated direction by Krista Cowan) by what appears to be a first-rate new company.
American Ensemble Theater Artistic Director Martin Blank, who was also the founding Artistic Director for Theater J, says that he was inspired to begin this new company by Mike Daisey’s one-man show, How Theater Failed America. When Daisey argued that “It’s up to each of you to fix [theater]”, Blank says, “I knew…I wanted to start a new theater company.”
There is no ready-made prescription for fixing theater. But to the extent that it can be improved by staging first-class productions of important plays, the American Ensemble Theater is well on its way.
A Walk in the Woods
By Lee Blessing
Produced by the American Ensemble Theater
Directed by Krista Cowan
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 110 minutes
Read all the reviews and check out the full Capital Fringe schedule here.
Did you see the show? What did you think?