Ambitious play explores friendship between arms control duo

In Lee Blessing's latest play, ``A Walk in the Woods,'' one of the protagonists, a Soviet arms negotiator, says to his American counterpart, ``No one wants [us] to succeed. Not even the man in the street.'' It is an exchange indicative of the fresh dramatic territory Mr. Blessing has charted in his ambitious new political drama.

If it is ultimately terrain that the author does not fully explore, the production, now in its world premi`ere at the Yale Repertory Theatre, nonetheless succeeds, due in large part to Des McAnuff's expert direction and fine performances by Ken Welsh and Josef Sommer.

Originally presented as a staged reading at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center last summer, ``A Walk in the Woods'' is a thematic departure for Blessing, a playwright known for his warm but unexceptional, domestic dramas including ``Oldtimers,'' ``Independence,'' and ``War of the Roses.''

Inspired by the actual ``walk in the woods treaty'' - the failed arms agreement reached by Paul Nitze and Yuli Kvitsinsky in 1982 - the play explores the relationship forged between two such negotiators over the course of a yearlong discussion.

It examinines the nuclear proliferation issue by focusing exclusively on the two equal but opposing professionals - one who ``says yes well,'' another who ``says no and looks good doing it.''

With this focus, Blessing sets his play apart from the madmen-at-the-helm approach used in works ranging from the film ``Dr. Strangelove'' to Arthur Kopit's recently revived play, ``End of the World.'' It is an approach that offers far richer dramatic possibilities.

However, if Blessing ultimately fails to mine this structure for the ontological questions surrounding the arms race (the immorality of war) or to fully probe mankind's thinking processes (why is mistrust more commonplace than trust, suspicion more common than forbearance?), the playwright has, nonetheless, crafted a skillful narrative that, like his domestic dramas, never sacrifices character for polemics.

It is Blessing's most ambitious and finest work to date. It should find any number of homes among America's regional theaters, if for no other reason than that its ambitious themes are executable on one set with just two characters.

Set in a forest outside Geneva, ``A Walk in the Woods'' traces the growing friendship between Andrey Botvinnik - the cynical, longtime Soviet negotiator - and John Honeyman - the youthful, naive American, who is clearly the new kid at the negotiating table.

Despite initial differences between their views - Botvinnik espousing man's need to fulfill his potential, ``even if his potential is to kill himself,'' and Honeyman countering that ``we have no choice but to believe in ourselves, to save ourselves'' - Blessing's characters ultimately forge a consensus of ``recognition.'' As Honeyman says, ``We see ourselves [in each other] across the table.''

The friendship-among-individuals conclusion, however, is only partly supported by the play's exposition. Blessing's dialogue slips occasionally into syrupy bromides (``Hope is a miracle.'' ``So is trust.'') or too easy wit (``Without arms, the US is just Canada with more people.''). There is also a not fully justified change in Honeyman's character.

Most critically, Blessing raises, but does not explore, one of his play's most interesting themes: ``man in love with war.'' As Botvinnik observes, ``If mankind hated war, there would be millions of [arms negotiators] and only two soldiers.''

Later it is the idealistic Honeyman who describes his reaction to seeing missiles firsthand: ``I looked over the hardware and fell in love with the huge, shiny perfect missiles.... I liked it. I wanted there to be more.'' It is a statement that carries considerable impact, and Blessing simply leaves it unexplored, returning instead to his facile theme of friendship.

Thanks to Mr. McAnuff's considerable directorial skill, such authorial lapses are not often noticeable. McAnuff's pacing and movement of the actors up and around Bill Clarke's evocative, hilly, birch-laden set avoids any sense of claustrophobia or stasis. Jennifer Tipton's lighting is a wonder.

Welsh is perfect as the boyish and rigid Honeyman, who initially perches stiffly on his bench parroting his political positions, but who, by the play's end, has metamorphosed into a passionate, ardent believer in compromise.

Sommer is equally seamless in the more supple role of Botvinnik, who wheedles and cajoles tales of country-and-western music and Babe Ruth out of Honeyman, instead of discussions of throw weights and first-strike capabilities.

``A Walk in the Woods'' plays at the Yale Rep through March 14. It will reopen later this summer at California's La Jolla Playhouse.

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