- Greggory Moore
In the 1960s fear and ideology brought the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. perilously close to nuclear war. But rather than responding to such brinksmanship by backing away from the precipice, both countries responded by raising the stakes, building up their arsenals to the point of being able destroy the entire planet many times over.
Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, both nations regularly met to negotiate agreements, pacts, and treaties meant to curb their mad arms race. Or so went the talking points. A Walk in the Woods, Lee Blessing’s fictionalized account of four conversations between two lead negotiators early in the Gorbachev era, posits the possibility that it was all for show.
John (David Nevell) is new to the negotiating table—at least on this level—and he is eager to dig right in and make progress where his predecessors have failed. But Andrey (Tony Abatemarco) has been there and done that, and he has brought his American counterpart to this Swiss copse to develop a friendship and admire the peaceful beauty that surrounds them. The difference is that John believe they can actually make changes that matter—he even bristles at the use of the word “diplomats” to describe them—whereas Andrey has been there and not done that. “Even if we agree,” he says, “do you think it will matter? [… Y] ou and I [may] die in mid-sentence […] right between the words ‘arms’ and ‘control.'”
Unless you count talking, walking, and sitting (and ten seconds of Andrey chasing an unseen rabbit), A Walk in the Woods is devoid of action, so the dialog really needs to kill for the play to be compelling. More often than not, though, John and Andrey sound less like two flesh-and-blood humans than they do Blessing’s mouthpiece for the not exactly revelatory idea—which he belabors—that nuclear weapons are dangerous and the world would be better off if Americans and Soviets got serious about peace.
This shortcoming is especially problematic because A Walk in the Woods is as much about the relationship between John and Andrey as it is about nuclear proliferation and its discontents. For the most part both characters lie there stiffly on the page rather than coming to life on the stage. At one point John comments on his own stiffness, almost as if Blessing is apologizing for it.
While this condition is innate, unfortunately Nevell and Abatemarco do little—or are given little change by director John Henry Davis—to loosen its grip. Every line is given in the “I talk, you talk” style—even when they’re both het up—that is almost completely alien to real life. Once the actors accidentally talked over each other. It was perhaps the performance’s freshest moment.
[NOTE: Spoiler alert.]
As A Walk in the Woods comes to a close, John is angered to find that Andrey was right all along: the negotiations are little more than a means to give people hope that the two countries are more interested in peace than in maintaining their superpower status. “It is not always pleasing to discover what you are meant for,” Andrey consoles.
But the ending of the play is more thought-provoking today than it was in 1987 when Blessing finished it. In the three decades since then the disintegration of the Soviet Union (whether or not Reagan was the real deal when it came to peacemaking, we know Gorbachev was) led to an easing of tensions between Washington and Moscow, tensions that have ramped back up in the Putin era.
So here we are today, longing for the good old days of the 1990s when the world’s great nuclear powers had differences. We can only hope not only are statesmen like John and Andrey, but ones who actually have the power to preserve us from the madness.
A WALK IN THE WOODS –BEVERLY O’NEIL THEATRE • 300 E OCEAN BLVD • LONG BEACH 90802 • 562.436.4610 • ICTLONGBEACH.ORG • THURS-SAT 8PM, SUN 2PM • $47-$49 • THROUGH MAY 22
(Photo credit: Tracey Roman)