You may wonder, living in a time when the fate of nations is no longer determined by the give and take of two superpowers, if Lee Blessing’s 1988 play "A Walk in the Woods" remains relevant. After revisiting the excellent production at the George Street Playhouse, I can attest not only to its topicality but to the urgency its message. In the play, smartly directed by Ethan McSweeny, an inexperienced, slightly arrogant negotiator John Honeyman (David Adkins), is sent to Geneva to head the United States’ arms negotiating team. But it is not at the negotiating table that the younger man makes and loses the most points with his cynical, testy, and older Russian adversary Andrey Botvinnik (Mark Hammer), but rather during their long, secluded walks among the linden trees. I must slightly amend the conditions of that "walk" since actor Mark Hammer, afflicted with diabetes, no longer has the use of his legs. He does, nevertheless, cover a lot of ground both physically and intellectually.
It is in the woods, with only a solitary wooden bench for Adkins to occasionally rest on, that these two self-determined men confront the complexity, and possible futility of compromise. The playwright notes that "A Walk in the Woods" (which won the Best New Play Award from the American Theater Critics Association in 1987), is "loosely connected" to an actual 1982 incident in Geneva where two such arms negotiators took "a walk in the woods" to try to reach an agreement.
Blessing cleverly uses that remote venue, beyond normal bureaucratic channels, to isolate two men whose ideology, personalities, and visions — both sociological and political — are as disparate as autumn and spring. We recognize that the passage of time and the change of seasons (thanks to set designer Michael Vaughn Sims) are as predictable as the negotiations themselves.
But Blessing’s interest is to probe the moral and ethical fiber of these crucial players. Even as we recognize them as pawns within their paranoid administrations’ red tape-filled agencies, the play courageously attempts to idealistically fantasize on a relationship that has failure written all over it.
"You’ll like the leaves here, they are very neutral," the Russian diplomat says to the eager-to-get-down-to-business American. Slightly condescending in tone, Botvinnik, nevertheless seems in earnest when he tells Honeyman, "We are beginning to be friends." "What we need is some seriousness" is Honeyman’s digressive response. But it is the Russian who is really toying with what appear to be digressions as he blurts out, "So tell me, aren’t you embarrassed to be an American? I am, to be a Russian."
It seems Botvinnik longs for an American to be "frivolous" with. The more Honeyman tries to convey the seriousness of their talks, the more Botvinnik refuses to let Honeyman even breathe words like detente, human rights, star wars, missiles, summit, test ban, and strategic objectives. The older man, who insists that their times in the wood "be trivial," is more intent on finding out if his opponent likes "country western music."
Without giving away some well-negotiated twists and turns, I will admit that I found myself predicting a little too many of the playwright’s curves. There are some frightening facts restated, however, like "those who make the arms make faster progress than the negotiators;" also that "neither of our countries can appear to be second in our quest for peace." Yes, the play is talky. But when the talk is this good, we listen.
With his full white mustache and fatherly image, Hammer never allows a tone of condescension into even such a remark to his younger adversary as, "A new man with a new plan." Hammer, who has numerous Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional theater credits, is also dialectically on target and altogether splendid as the cagey diplomat who would seemingly rather chase a squirrel than a treaty, but at the same time insist he is a realist. Comely and groomed to the nines (as is Mr. Hammer) by designer Michael Sharp, Adkins is effectively uptight and occasionally endearing as the all too rational American.
A Walk in the Woods, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Lee Blessing’s prize-winning drama. To December 14. $28 to $52.
Critic’s Note: Readings of Lee Blessing’s provocative new play "Whores," which explores the granting of asylum to national leaders accused of atrocities, will be presented at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch on Sunday and Monday, December 7 and 8, at 7 p.m. $10 donation. 732-229-3166.