Out of Arm’s Way: Two negotiators take a breather from a weapons summit.
Out of Arm’s Way: Two negotiators take a breather from a weapons summit.

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The playwright Lee Blessing is one of the masters of resonant realism, and his Cold War drama A Walk in the Woods is a compact lesson in restrained storytelling. Two nuclear arms negotiators—one a naïve, idealistic American with a bit of a hero complex, the other a weary but still-wily Soviet veteran with nary an illusion left to his name—go for a stroll in the Geneva woods, hoping to find common ground away from the cameras. But whatever agreement they eventually find, no matter how hard-won their eventual mutual understanding, they’re small players in a bigger game, and their story’s dejected ending stands, 25 years after the play’s premiere, as a reminder of how slowly the wheels of massive, entrenched interests can grind.

John Honeyman (Brit Herring) is the prim, stiff-backed junior American, modeled on the real-life diplomat Paul H. Nitze, who famously took just such a walk in the summer of 1982 with his Soviet counterpart, Yuli Kvitsinsky. He’s convinced he’s got the right plan to reach a breakthrough—that all he needs to do is his formal, correct best at the negotiating table, and the Russians will see the sense of it and sign on.

Andrey Botvinnik (Steve LaRocque), who’s been at this for years, knows better. His has been a history of push and pull, of flirting with yes only to find a last-minute reason for no; his American counterparts have come and gone, eager and then defeated, while he’s remained, charming and worldly and elegant and immovable.

And lonely: What may be different this time around is that Botvinnik has grown tired and needs something other than his sense of duty and his love of the game. I’ll help you move the ball with my superiors, he tells Honeyman—if you’ll drop your guard and get to know me for me.

Blessing’s meditation on the spectrum of institutional and personal diplomacy is both grounded in the complicated nitty-gritty—Herring’s Honeyman rattles off a long list of at-issue ordnance in one frustrated outburst, begging Botvinnik to choose a missile or a base to restart talks around—and endearingly humane. These men have their egos, true, but they have hearts, too, and as the seasons pass in those quiet Swiss woodlands (lyrically realized by set designer Samina Vieth and lighting designer Don Slater), the latter take more than a couple of bruises. It’s an affecting play, effectively staged.