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A Walk in the Woods

Theatre Review by James Wilson - March 26, 2018

K. Lorrel Manning and Martin Van Treuren
Photo by Edward T. Morris

The experience of watching A Walk in the Woods, Lee Blessing's 1988 play in its current revival by the Barrow Group, is both simultaneously comforting and disconcerting. The play centers on the conversations and attempted negotiations of two national envoys, one American and one Soviet, and for most of the evening the political discourse is civil, intelligent, and relatively emotionally restrained. Living in an era in which global politics has become a contact sport, watching the play made me long for a time when international relations were, at least publicly, respectful and decorous. Unfortunately, civility does not always make for the most gripping drama, and rather shamefully, I thought perhaps some occasional puerile name-calling and pompous boasts might make for a more riveting evening.

This is the third production of the play I have seen. In the original Broadway production Robert Prosky and Sam Waterston played the dueling Soviet and American diplomats, and in the Keen Company's slightly rewritten revival in 2014 the parts were played by Kathleen Chalfant and Paul Niebanck. The Barrow Group cast includes Martin Van Treuren as Andrey Botvinnik (the Soviet) and K. Lorrel Manning as John Honeyman (the American).

The plot is generally straightforward. In brief, the two men meet four times over the course of a year (once during each season) in order to devise a possible nuclear arms agreement between the two countries. Away from a sterile boardroom and out of distance from a prying press, the two men are able to chat more honestly and personally in a forest clearing near Geneva. Discussion between the two men moves from nuclear threats and political posturing to country music and favorite colors. Therefore, the central question is as much about whether or not the men will reach an arms agreement as it is about might or might not a full-fledged bromance develop.

More so than the other times I have seen the play, I was reminded of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The characters seem comparatively alone in the universe while at the mercy of larger forces (that are always unseen but in complete control of the world's destiny). Blessing even seems to quote Beckett when near the conclusion he has Botvinnik ask his associate, "Shall we go back?" They do not.

Whereas Godot takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, A Walk in the Woods paints a precarious condition in which Armageddon is always a failed mediation away. Addressing mankind's absurd and perverse desire to eradicate itself, Honeyman says, "If we fail now, history itself will disappear."

Under Donna Jean Fogel's unfussy direction, Van Treuren and Manning bring, for the most part, admirable restraint to their roles. There are glimmers of optimism throughout, but the overall sense is wistfulness and quiet resignation. Van Treuren's Botvinnik is less cuddly and misleadingly obtuse than Robert Prosky's take on the character, and his is not as deceptively (and hilariously) manipulative as Kathleen Chalfant's interpretation, but he successfully mines the part for suitable humor and pathos.

As Honeyman, Manning holds his own in the far less showy part, and his frustration with his intractable consort builds effectively. His blow-up scene, however, is a bit too big and does not reflect the well-practiced and ingrained reserve of the character.

The play certainly speaks to audiences today, and amid the noisy and noisome political climate, perhaps it is advisable to take in a mild and reflective play every now and then. After all, in Blessing's open-air, forested setting the only tweets come from the birds.

A Walk in the Woods
Through April 15
The Barrow Group Mainstage Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, 3rd Floor
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix