By Lee Blessing; Directed by Jonathan Silverstein
Produced by Keen Company
Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 10.18.14
The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
by Ben Coleman on 10.4.14
Kathleen Chalfant and Paul Niebanck. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: Kathleen Chalfant and Paul Niebanck's captivating performances met with Lee Blessing's rich text, result in a superior revival from the spirited Keen Company.
There are few people more enchanting to go strolling with in the woods than Kathleen Chalfant. If she ever offers you a frivolous conversation amidst a Swiss forest, jump at the opportunity. However, for the unlucky masses who are unable to share in her private company (I wonder if she’s on Facebook...), purchasing a ticket to the fine revival of Lee Blessing’s A Walk In The Woods presented by the Keen Company makes for an excellent alternative.
Often considered Blessing’s most formidable achievement as a playwright (it was nominated for the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1988), A Walk In The Woods tells the story of a Russian and an American arms negotiator advocating for nuclear disarmament at the Geneva summit during the Cold War. The story, based on true events, depicts how two diplomats were able to make headway on their proposals through amicable excursions in the forests of Switzerland. In Blessing’s original incarnation, this two-hander was performed by two men, but Director/Artistic Director Jonathan Silverstein has taken a gender-bending approach to the Russian character (Chalfant) with much success.
This is not an evening of boisterous theatre, operatic performances, or gasp-worthy declarations. A Walk In The Woods is an incisive and probing play that asks its audience to put on listening caps and absorb the exchanges happening on stage, whether they are political or superficial. Though a well-crafted play, its subtlety might cause it to fade in one’s memory over time, but in the case of the Keen Company’s revival, it is this simple, no-frills touch that makes this such an enchanting and enduring evening of theatre-going.
Paul Niebanck plays John Honeyman, the newly appointed American negotiator, whose stoic portrayal melts into softness after quite a few romps through the trees. Chalfant is the seasoned Russian politico, Irina Botvinnik, and from her first entrance it is evident that we are about to witness another chameleonic performance from one of the crown jewels of the American Theatre. Chalfant shifts tactics imperceptibly, amusing herself as she tries to engage the deadly serious Niebanck in a bit of fun during their officious conversations. What appears to be a high-stakes game of chess develops into a genuine human connection, and watching Niebanck’s cold exterior gradually evaporate over the course of their relationship is another stroke of expertise in this revival.
Set against Scott Bradley's impressionistic scenic design and directed with Silverstein’s light and affecting hand, we are presented with a bench, two riveting actors, and a solid script. It is truly refreshing to be reminded of the richness that can be found in such simplicity. Save the movie stars and the 40-million dollar budgets for another day; sometimes we need to just sit in the woods and watch.
(A Walk In The Woods plays at The Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, through October 18, 2014. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7PM; Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM; and Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are $62.50 - $81.25 and can be purchased at keencompany.org or by calling 212.239.6200.)