`A Walk in the Woods' on Broadway

A Walk in the Woods Play by Lee Blessing. Directed by Des McAnuff. Starring Sam Waterston, Robert Prosky. ``A Walk in the Woods'' strides boldly onto the Broadway scene. Lee Blessing makes his New York debut at the Booth Theatre with a topical comedy drama inspired by an actual incident in the annals of American-Soviet nuclear arms negotiations. In what may well prove the most provocative play of the season, Mr. Blessing focuses on the human equation in a superpower encounter. Brought to stage life in the committed performances of Sam Waterston and Robert Prosky, ``A Walk in the Woods'' proves an unusually stimulating entertainment.

The event that sparked Mr. Blessing's imagination occurred in 1982 when arms negotiators Paul Nitze of the United States and Yuli Kvitszinsky of the Soviet Union took a ``walk in the woods'' to see if they could work out an agreement. Although a temporary failure, the two-man effort at least kindled hope for a possible future pact. Mr. Blessing fictionalizes the participants in the persons of American John Honeyman (Mr. Waterston) and Soviet Andrey Botvinik (Mr. Prosky).

For the Blessing ``Walk,'' Honeyman and Botvinik take to Geneva's sylvan outskirts on four occasions. Here, the perversely puckish Russian tests and teases his younger American counterpart. Botvinik would like to establish a friendly relationship, a two-man entente cordiale. To the stiffer and more formal product of Washington's Foggy Bottom, a traditional format is both preferable and more workable. Botvinik, however, will not be denied. Whether admiring nature as he twiddles his thumbs or removing a thread from Honeyman's immaculately tailored suit, the Russian seeks to digress or debate as the mood takes him.

At one point in their first walk, Botvinik suggests that their talk turn trivial. He mentions subjects like Mickey Mouse, cowboys, or how to make a banjo. When Honeyman weakly comes up with a brown suit as his candidate for triviality, Botvinik snaps: ``There's a difference between trivial and boring.'' Nevertheless, the two men agree to keep walking and talking - and confusing the press by returning separately or together from their strolls.

Hampered by the negative reactions of their respective governments and by a pre-election presidential announcement, the negotiators concur on a wording that may salvage the agreement on which they have been laboring. But this, too, is rejected by Washington and Moscow. ``A Walk in the Woods'' ends poignantly as the once ebullient Botvinik announces wearily that he will not be returning to Geneva. The news stirs Honeyman to his most violent outburst, a belated and backhanded admission of what their relationship and cooperation have meant to him. It goes beyond their differences of history, ideology, and nationalism.

Under Des McAnuff's sensitive direction, the two stars are giving beautifully matched performances. Mr. Waterston gradually reveals the dedicated and even impassioned negotiator beneath Honeyman's formal fa,cade. Blessing allows him one crazy verbal flight, an anecdote concerning a discarded gum wrapper and a Swiss policeman, and the actor charges through it enthusiastically.

The stocky, round-faced Mr. Prosky relishes Botvinik's steady supply of quips and aphorisms: ``You'll like the trees here, they're neutral....Speaking technical Russian is like speaking algebra....`Don't try so hard' is a euphemism for `Don't try at all.'... Work without hope is a dry thing....All these trees will be cut down and made into negotiating tables - if we're lucky.''

The birches and evergreens of Bill Clarke's hummocky scenery, with its focal park bench, provides a set for all seasons (lighted for the prevailing mood by Richard Riddell). Mr. Clarke's autumnal descent of leaves won a round of applause from a preview audience. Ellen V. McCartney has tailored the diplomats impeccably and Michael S. Roth has composed incidental music to suit the calendar and the Geneva weather.

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