The guy you want to have a beer with in Lee Blessing’s “A Walk in the Woods” — or more appropriately, a vodka — is the Russian arms negotiator. His American counterpart is, well, kind of a pill. Blessing’s smart, funny and intermittently profound Cold War-era script sets things up that way. The contrast between the men rings especially true in Quotidian Theatre Company’s largely engaging take on the 1988 play.
Actor Steve LaRocque gives a wily, winning performance as veteran Soviet diplomat Andrey Botvinnik. He shambles about the stage and jokes relentlessly with uptight American John Honeyman. It is Botvinnik who insists they take a break from their high-level meeting in Geneva to stroll in the woods. Cynicism and disillusion have dulled Botvinnik’s ardor after years of getting nowhere on arms control, so he prefers to change the subject and admire the leaves. As Honeyman, Brit Herring provides an impatient, fastidious, buttoned-down foil for LaRocque. Young, idealistic and missing a funny bone, Honeyman lusts for success. He doesn’t know what to make of this Russian, who seems more interested in friendly chitchat than missile throw-weights. The pairing of LaRocque and Herring grows more felicitous as the play goes on under Gillian Drake’s clear and gentle direction, but it has a bumpy start. While Blessing seems to have given the Russian a more amiable stage persona, Herring, who has stage presence to burn, gives us too little about Honeyman to like, at least early on. His character is almost cartoonishly stiff-backed, humorless and prim, wiping off a log bench with his handkerchief before he sits down and acting as though this expanse of idyllic woods — designed by Samina Vieth as an inviting grove of slender cedars and crunchy leaves — is instead a teeming swamp.
The second scene opens after two months have passed, with the fallen leaves removed to reflect seasonal changes. Now, as the two men begin to forge a bond, Herring eases up on Honeyman’s more annoying traits. Yet he never fully allows the character to relax in his own skin, and that makes the rapport between the two men slightly less credible.
A real incident inspired “A Walk in the Woods.” Two arms negotiators working in Geneva in 1982 took a break to stroll in the woods. They were American Paul Nitze and Russian Yuli Kvitsinsky. Afterward, they were able to hammer out an arms-control proposal. The play imagines the rest, launching the Cold Warriors into a candid and sharp conversation that stretches over the better part of a year of meetings. They talk about the moral hazards of nuclear weapons and the mistrust between their governments, as well as the mistrust between hawks and doves within their governments. “Walk” gives the Russian, who seems to speak for playwright Blessing, a chance to remind the American of unflattering similarities between our national characters. He suggests that if Russians had landed in North America a few hundred years ago, they, too, would have killed the Indians and taken their land. Honeyman, for his part, confesses that he had to learn how not to be seduced by the technological beauty of nuclear weaponry.
“A Walk in the Woods” does really well in intimate venues. It ran on Broadway in the smaller Booth Theatre in 1988 and was done at Arena Stage in 1989 in the Kreeger. The small local troupe American Ensemble Theater did it at the Goethe Institute in 2010. It worked in those spaces, and it’s working now for Quotidian at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. Herring’s uptight American may well achieve a more relaxed detente with LaRocque’s raffish Russian as the run goes on.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
by Lee Blessing. Directed by Gillian Drake. Lighting design, Don Slater. About 1 hour 45 minutes, including one intermission. Presented through April 14 by Quotidian Theatre Company at the Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. www.quotidiantheatre.org.