Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Walk in the Woods Revival on Theatre Row

L-R: Kathleen Chalfant and Paul Niebanck in A WALK IN THE WOODS.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
A Walk in the Woods by Lee Blessing was first produced on Broadway in 1988, starring Sam Waterston as John Honeyman, an American arms negotiator, and Robert Prosky as Andrei Botvinik, his Russian counterpart.  Based largely on the 1982 arms negotiations that took place between Paul H. Nitze and Yuli A Kvitsinsky, the play was generally well received, garnering both Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award nominations.  Now it is being revived at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row by Keen Company in celebration of the opening of Keen’s fifteenth season.

The current revival is excellent – with a twist.  The roles of Honeyman and Prosky have typically been played by men but, in this production, Botvinik’s name has been changed from Andrei to Irina and the role is being played by a woman, Kathleen Chalfant.  (The role of John Honeyman is still being played by a man, Paul Niebanck.) This gender shift in casting might have had enormous consequences – but it didn’t.  The change didn’t introduce any sexual dynamics into the relationship between Honeyman and Botvinik and it didn’t attempt to express any special female insights or attitudes on issues of war and peace or the arms race or disarmament.  Minimal changes (mostly pronouns) were made to the script and the net result was no substantive difference between the scripts of the 1988 and the current productions.

That is not to say that Chalfant interpreted the role of Botvinik in the same way that Prosky did.  Far from it!  But the difference was not one of sex; rather it was the difference between Prosky and Chalfant themselves.  Prosky played the role as a joyful, earthy, boisterous, cynical Russian bear whereas Chalfant plays it as a much more sophisticated, self-controlled, worldly-wise (albeit just as cynical) Russian technocrat.  And while Prosky was superb in the original role, Chalfant is also absolutely delightful in her own very different interpretation.

The role of Honeyman – a callow, uptight, idealistic youth who has not fully grasped just how the game of international arms negotiation is really played and the politics behind it - is not nearly as juicy a part as that of Botwinik but Niebanck does a fine job with it.  But there really is no way he can compete with Chalfant, who truly steals the show.

When all is said and done, however, A Walk in the Woods, while very well written, remains quite dated (even if Botvinik is now played by a woman, which would have been totally unrealistic a quarter century ago when the play was first produced).  It is hard to imagine that any similar sort of disarmament negotiations could take place between the US and Russia today, what with Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its incursion into the Ukraine, and any “disarmament” talks with Syria, regarding the elimination of its chemical weapons stockpiles, or with Iran, regarding its nuclear aspirations, are of a wholly different nature and would require a completely different play.

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