A Walk In The Woods – the Keen Company’s season opening production – is absolutely splendid.
Two diplomats in the world of the 1980’s take a walk in the woods to give themselves, and the press corps a break. The elder, a Soviet diplomat, Irina Botvinnik (Kathleen Chalfant) is guiding the newcomer from the United States, John Honeyman (Paul Niebanck), through the paces of what happens to negotiations when someone removes the table. When the well-planned moves are put to the side, what happens then?
Honeyman is having none of it. He is there to negotiate, not be friends. Botvinnik more or less points out that they already are friends, or that is they are on the cusp. With so much at stake with peace treaties, nuclear war heads etc. etc. – would it not be better if they were friends?
Besides which, she points out to him, what they are doing is more or less futile. There are more nuclear warheads on the planet than there were at the time of the first treaty dedicated to removing them. They are executing the wishes of their leaders who are self referential in the extreme. Best to figure out how to get along in the trenches.
This peaks Honeyman’s interest, and he is engaged in a conversation against his wishes.
These two walk in the woods each season for nearly a year. The conversation is maddening and enlightening at the same time. Botvinnik, in spite of her insistence on being friends, thinks the two governments are insufferable: The US thinks of themselves as idealists because they are not surrounded by a gaggle of hungry countries. Conversely, because the Soviet Union had they opposite problem, they think of themselves as realists. Honeyman is striving for a world where power is shared and peace is assumed.
Botvinnik is used to the bumps in the road. She has failed before and is not afraid of failing again. Honeyman, on the other hand is not interested in failing. He wants the negotiations to proceed apace, and when something goes off the rail he is frustrated and frantic.
The dialogue here is nearly an orchestration. The scenes are like movements with great rushing intent, moments of repose, staccato attacks. And if you would like a lesson in listening – I invite you to pay attention to Ms. Chalfant. This is some of her very finest work. You could literally block your ears, keep your eyes on her, and you would know exactly what is going on. Mr. Niebanck is a bit slow to get started, and he is playing an earnest prig after all, but he does hop on board eventually. When he does, this walk becomes an extraordinary duet.
This play may seem dated, but it is anything but. The negotiations are still going on everywhere. Equal pay, same sex marriage, combating ISIS – who will pick up the wet towel from the bathroom floor, and, of course, leaving the toilet seat up.
No matter the subject, when the stakes are personal the engagement matters. Mr. Blessing has written a play about human beings choosing to step into life with determination and grace. Each of us could take a page out of this one.
The only downside to this production was the forest itself. The two dimensional trees were made of cardboard and had horizontal seams for folding. Am unfortunate choice for such a fine production.
As for changing the Soviet diplomat from a man to a woman – here is Mr. Blessing’s comment.
I’ve formally been asked for my approval to change the gender of one or the other negotiator in this play four times, that I recall. In each case I gave it. Some playwrights are quite conservative about the presentation of their plays–even those that have enjoyed scores, or even hundreds, of productions. It’s an individual choice, to be sure. In the case of this play (and this playwright, perhaps), it seems to me that being flexible has proved rewarding.
I think the gender change can wake us up a bit more to a play that discusses issues that haven’t been on the front burner (in quite this way at least) for decades. It reminds us that more and more women are finding their way into our society’s biggest socio-political discussions, and that they have already proved themselves every bit as competent as their male counterparts.
Of course, the issues of A Walk in the Woods are very much on the front burner in other parts of the world. I recently saw a poster from a production of the play in Mumbai, for example. And given that it’s nuclear war the play discusses, no matter where the question is front and center, all of us–women and men–inevitably must feel involved.
I love the cast in this production, and certainly one of the added inducements was the chance to work with Kathleen Chalfant–an itch I’ve finally been able to scratch since I first saw her in Wit. Both Kathy and Paul are making this an extraordinary process for me.
– Lee Blessing, September 2014
WITH: Kathleen Chalfant and Paul Niebanck
Scenic design by Scott Bradley, lighting design by Josh Bradford, costume design by Jennifer Paar, and sound design by M.L. Dogg.
A Keen Company Production. Performances are at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th. Through October 18th.