A Walk in the Woods
The Clurman Theatre
410 W. 42nd Street
Lee Blessing’s two-character play A Walk in the Woods first bowed on Broadway in 1988, and it won much attention and many nominations for Tony awards, as well as one for the Pulitzer Prize. It is very much of its moment, a dramatization of talks between two diplomats, one from America and one from the then-Soviet Union, who are trying to put together a document that will reduce nuclear arms on both sides. They speak in the woods on the outskirts of Geneva, and there is much talk about Switzerland as a neutral country and what it might mean as a model for world peace.
In the original play, the diplomats were both men. One of our major theater actresses, Kathleen Chalfant, expressed an interest in playing the Russian diplomat, and so Blessing made some changes to his play to allow her to do so (the character is now called Irina instead of Andrey). I have not seen the play as it was originally written, but making it a duel between a Russian woman and an American man brings out a whole other layer that deepens the drama. Chalfant plays some of her character’s early scenes in a somewhat coquettish way that activates a slight romantic comedy edge to the material, and this feels like an advantage. There are times when this new way of doing the play makes it seem like a variation on Ninotchka (1939) where the dour Greta Garbo Russian commissar character is flipped, so that she is a lady who has so often been trapped in gloomy surroundings that she insists on being frivolous.
The American diplomat, John Honeyman (Paul Niebanck), sees her bent for frivolity as a delaying tactic at first, and it is partially that. But gradually we begin to see that Irina’s need for human contact is a desperate attempt to keep her spirits up in a game that she knows she cannot win. Honeyman is still young and new enough to diplomacy that he doesn’t understand the anxious futility of what they’re doing yet, and it is Irina’s job to alert him to that gently over time.
There is one area where the sex change has an unwanted emphasis: Irina has dry eyes and spends a lot of the play putting artificial tears into them. When she first tells Honeyman about this, she goes on to say that she is dry everywhere, and the fact that this doesn’t get a Joan Rivers laugh is testament to Chalfant’s nearly seamless technical command. This is a modest production, with a bare-bones set, and if it has any weight at all it is due to Chalfant and her partner Niebanck, who works his part up slowly and brings it to a state of honestly broken emotion. Chalfant is theater royalty, with Angels in America and Wit as her highest achievements so far, and if this revival is an appetizer in comparison, she manages to make it a tasty one.