Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

A Walk in the Woods
North Coast Repertory Theatre
Review by David Dixon | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's review of Put Your House in Order


David Ellenstein and J. Todd Adams
Photo by Aaron Rumley
A good play can feature a premise that deals with history yet be very relevant, that presents mainly conversation yet be highly entertaining. Lee Blessing's A Walk in the Woods, currently presented by North Coast Repertory Theatre, is based on the arms control negotiations between the representative of the Soviet Union, Andrey Botvinnik (Artistic Director, David Ellenstein), and his American counterpart John Honeyman (J. Todd Adams). Set in Geneva during the Cold War it is, as with much of the history of the last century, very timely today. Inspired by the actual talks between negotiators Paul Nitze and Yuli A. Kvitsinsky, the protagonists discuss the positions and disagreements between the two superpowers and, in the process, forge a close relationship. Despite the lack of progress in the talks, their friendship continues to bloom over the course of four seasons of negotiation.

While it isn't billed as a comedy, there are a lot of funny moments during the play. Both the witty Andrey and the straightforward, often cranky, by-the-book John form an odd-couple pair. John's irritation with Andrey's attitude and penchant for small talk can get a little repetitive in the first part of the play, but the connection between the two becomes increasingly compelling as the storyline progresses. The script does have serious moments, and it reveals the cynical attitude and pessimistic outlook behind Andrey's seemingly easygoing personality, and the different shifts in his tone are presented in a natural style by director Richard Baird.

Baird's direction and the work of the crew are most effective when featuring the start of a new negotiation session. Baird's direction, Marty Burnett's set, Matt Novotny's lighting, Elisa Benzoni's costumes, and Aaron Rumley's audio highlight the different and changing atmospheres of the four periods. Baird also uses a slightly updated version of Michael Roth's original score, which includes guitar work by Peter Sprague and is perfectly suited for the deep discussions that take place in the woods. He allows audiences to focus on the performances by Ellenstein and Adams, and deserves credit for keeping the interplay between them consistently engrossing.

Ellenstein plays Andrey with a lighthearted charisma, while revealing a surprising amount of wisdom and insight. A significant part of the production's appeal is the manner in which Ellenstein portrays Andrey, and some of his sudden unpredictable dramatic shifts often catch the audience off guard. Adams is the more serious and straight of the two, since John is often frustrated by Andrey's behavior but, nevertheless, intently listening to him. He is, however, far more than a passive presence, particularly in a hilarious discourse on a situation involving a language barrier. The chemistry between the two Cold War rivals is powerful and moving, and shows the human side of intelligent people in the Cold War.

All the political elements of the tale are fascinating, but it is the growing friendship between Andrey and John that is the most memorable. The bond between them, as two representatives of opposing superpowers, reminds us that adversaries can be friends, discourse can be civil and not shrill, and we all have the potential to keep our humanity (and sense of humor) in tense and dark times.

A Walk in the Woods through June 30, 2019, at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Suite D, Solana Beach CA. Performances are Sundays through Saturdays. Tickets start at $42.00 and can be purchased online at www.northcoastrep.org or by phone at 858-481-1055.


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