The Soviet Union is no more, and the days when reaching an agreement with it on arms control was a matter of planetary life and death are fading into memory. Why, then, would a play about two superpower negotiators trying to put controls on the nuclear arms race mean anything to us today?
A Walk in the Woods, the famous Lee Blessing play now being given voice on the Quotidian stage, provides its own answer. It is a story less about arms negotiation and more about the irresistible inertia of institutional failure.
The savvy Andrey Botvinnik (Steve LaRocque), a veteran Soviet negotiator known for his charm and elusiveness, ambles through the Swiss woods (absolutely charming set by Samina Vieth) one summer day with his American counterpart, the rigid and self-important John Honeyman (Brit Herring). The Americans have put an offer on the table and Honeyman is hoping that, away from the spotlight of formal process, Botvinnik will speak candidly about the Soviet reaction to it. But Botvinnik will have nothing to do with it; he wants, instead, to become Honeyman’s friend. He wants to talk about where Honeyman got his suit, and his shoes. He wants to talk about Mickey Mouse.
And so it goes for much of the first Act. Honeyman, who sees himself less of a negotiator and more of an architect of peace, pursues Botvinnik through this and other sylvan meanderings in the hopes of winning a Soviet commitment to his peace plan – or, if not that, at least a clear and well-reasoned objection to it. Botvinnik wants to talk about anything but business. Ultimately, he names his price for his cooperation. Honeyman, he says, must be his friend first.
It is, of course, a portrayal of American idealism played against European personalism. Honeyman, the idealist, believes that the force of his peace plan has the power to transform the world, and can therefore rise to success on its own merits. Botvinnik, on the other hand, believes that the political must start with the personal.
But Honeyman and Botvinnik are both pawns on an infinitely large chessboard, and if we believe that an agreement between them, however hard-won, will resolve the difficulties between their two countries we will come in for a rude shock. There are a thousand hidden persuaders against any sort of change, even the most reasonable and salutary ones. “Don’t try so hard,” the President tells Honeyman before squashing his proposal. “It’s a metaphor,” Botvinnik explains, “for don’t try at all.”
Quotidian’s production of this two-hander is pleasant and agreeable. LaRocque’s Russian accent is unsteady, but it is not of primary importance. Botvinnik is a sophisticated man who doubtlessly speaks many languages, and such people sometimes develop a dialect of their own. It is beyond dispute that LaRocque gets his character; he is at every moment able to show the Russian’s charm, amiability, cleverness – and loneliness. Botvinnik is a man of great dignity, but his heart is naked, and LaRocque shows it clearly.
A Walk in the Woods
Closes April 14, 2013
4508 Walsh Street
1 hour, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Fridays thru Sundays
But I would rather have seen those self-involved aspects of his personality played down, and more attention given to his sober desire to save the world from catastrophe, which is a more appealing feature of his personality. For the play to work, we must warm to Honeyman, since the play’s resolution is as tragic for him as it is for everyone else. Herring is an actor of considerable skill, but because he comes on so strong at the play’s outset and really doesn’t soften until the second Act, A Walk in the Woods is not as effective as it could be.
Nonetheless, it’s heady stuff. Be forewarned: the play has a great deal talk in it. But it’s good talk, and you would be well advised to listen to it.
A Walk in the Woods, by Lee Blessing, Produced by Quotidian Theatre, directed by Gillian Drake, assisted by Nick Vargas. Featuring Steve LaRocque and Brit Herring. Samina Vieth is the set designer; Don Slater is the lighting designer, and Ed Moser is the lighting and sound technician. Katie Key serves as stage manager.