When Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods was first produced in 1988, the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union were both still intact. Arms negotiations between the world’s two superpowers seemed to be happening continuously for decades, with a new agreement on limiting nuclear weapons every couple of years. But as soon as one treaty was signed, new and better weapons were being developed on both sides. Blessing’s play dealt with a pair of such negotiators from each country, meeting in the solitude of the Geneva woods, away from the prying eyes and ever listening ears of reporters. It was a chance to get away from the table, get some fresh air and get to know their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. The play is at times serious but also playful, especially on the part of the long time Russian negotiator Andrey, a master of deception. In the play’s opening scene, he is eager to find out as much as possible about the new American negotiator he now has to deal with. It’s a clever game of cat and mouse and the play is a joy for theatregoers who relish intelligent conversation.
The current production at Actors Co-Op has been skillfully directed by Ken Sawyer in the intimate confines of the Crossley Theatre. The audience comes to feel they are nearly seated on the same bench as the negotiators. Sawyer has given his talented duo a lot of movement and the simple setting by Ellen Lenbergs presents several different views so the action never becomes static. I am not sure any real arms negotiator would like to match skill sets with Phil Crowley’s Andrey. His performance is a master class in subtlety and panache. But he is evenly matched here by Nan McNamara’s Joan, who is being given her first chance on a big stage and she really doesn’t want to muck it up. She is desperate to make a deal and she soon learns the fine art of negotiating. They are a formidable duo. This is the fourth time Blessing has allowed a sex change to one of his characters and it really gives the play a striking immediacy. It is easy to see a Hilary Clinton or a Madeleine Albright or even a Condoleezza Rice sitting on that bench with the shrewd power of their sex giving the opposing side some stiff competition. A Walk in the Woods is a joy to experience.
Actors Co-Op, 1760 N. Gower St. in Hollywood. Ends March 18. www.actorco-op.org