‘A Walk in the [Very Scary] Woods’ at the M.V. Playhouse: An old and vital conversation revisited

Daren Kelly as Andrey Botvinnik and Adrienne D. Williams as Joan Honeyman in "A Walk in the Woods." — Photo by MJ Bruder Munafo

This is a play you’ll want to see with a few of your smartest and funniest friends. Since they’re smart, they probably have a grasp of recent history, “recent” in this case defined as the cold war and the ludicrous arms race between the the U.S. and the late and unlamented U.S.S.R.

“A Walk in the Woods,” by multiple-award-winning playwright Lee Blessing, was first performed in New Haven in 1987, and was based on a real-life stroll outside a Geneva conference center in 1982. American negotiator Paul H. Nitze and Russian counterpart Yuli A. Kvitsinsky, the two men charged with the noble task of disarming both countries of their appalling arsenals, embarked on an informal walk in the woods. The pair hammered out an accord that pleased the two of them, yet went on to be trounced by both their sets of leaders.

Futility is the overriding theme of “A Walk,” and it’s vouchsafed to the older, urbane, and world-weary Russian diplomat, Andrey Botvinnik, played with exquisite charm and existential despair by Daren Kelly, to explain and evade the youthful idealism of Joan Honeyman, portrayed by Adrienne D. Williams. She’s new to the job, and astounded to be blocked at every turn by the Russian wit who, after far too many rounds of failed — or only speciously successful — peace talks in Geneva, is more comfortable in the role of boulevardier than negotiator.

The story evolves in four seasons of rambles through a Swiss parkland, insisted upon by the Russian, for whom nothing at this point penetrates his soul other than the fragrant outdoor air, trees, mountains. Contrarily, the American is frustrated when away from tables where treaties are pounded out.

“You may call me Andrushka!” the Russian invites her laughingly; “And may I call you Joanie?” He’s not flirting. He woos her for friendship. “We’re not friends!” she objects as if he’s inviting her to shoplift from the local stores. We wonder what the he’s up to; is he a smooth operator straight out of a Le Carré novel? He himself jokes about the fabled dark arts of the Kremlin.

And yet Andrushka sees the bigger picture: For every reduction of an old and soon-to-be-obsolete system of weapons signed away on the dotted line, a new, ghastlier weapon of mutual annihilation will be rolled out, first by one superpower, then by the other rushing to catch up.

“We started after the war with a hundred warheads. Thirteen treaties later, we have over fifty thousand apiece!”

Repurposing “A Walk in the Woods” at this time is an interesting choice on the part of Playhouse Artistic Director MJ Bruder Munafo, who also directed the present work. We as an audience watch like archangels, looking down and knowing how it’s all going to turn out. Of course, the Soviet Union in 1987 is close to its finale. In hindsight, the fear of all those nukes — theirs and ours — has largely evaporated along with communism, even though the warheads themselves are still very much in existence.

The new threat has been rogue states getting ahold of one of these monsters and wreaking havoc. And of course that could happen, and of course we’re still afraid. It’s simply that Moscow has ceased to be our big bogeyman.

Both actors fit finely into their parts. Mr. Kelly, star of Broadway and television series such as “Law & Order” and “True Blood,” slips into this role as elegantly as he does his silk suits, and he brings a finely honed Russian burr to his words.

Ms. Williams, a seasoned actress in theater, television, and screen, has the initially thankless job of inhabiting a flunky with talking points that go nowhere with her astute operator from the “axis of evil.” But slowly she grows her character in the only direction that will do the world a bit of good: her humanity. At the end, Mr. Botvinnik’s clever assessments begin to make sense to her as, for instance, he remarks that the two megapowers positively adore their warheads, and the power and prestige they confer: “Without weapons, you would be a wealthy Canada. We would be a super Poland.”

The original roles were played by two men, most notably on Broadway by Alec Guinness and Edward Herrmann. Reviews of that time indicated that all the good lines and character components went to the dapper Russian, so whether male or female, this was a stacked deck against which Ms. Williams plays her hand and, by the final scene, woebegone well into a year of this process, she acquits herself with dignity and a nascent wisdom.

After you’ve seen “A Walk in the Woods,” and you’ve sat up with those smart and funny friends, if you haven’t already, you might want to read up on Russian history, and discover that this distant nation was not always the evil genie we deemed it from 1947 to 1991. We might ponder the fact that while we needed a Civil War to emancipate the slaves, Russian serfs (equally enslaved; look it up) were set free in 1861 with the stroke of a pen by a benevolent despot, Alexander II. (Yes, they had despots, some of them Terrible such as Ivan, but many of them, like Catherine II — good chum of Voltaire’s — were more enlightened than lots of our presidents). I personally recommend the multivolume history of Imperial Russia by Robert K. Massie, “Nicholas and Alexandra.”

“History is geography over time!” declares Andrey. You come away with new respect for Old World perspectives, something it could take another few centuries — should we be so lucky to have them — for us to acquire.

Music composed by Dan Murphy lends the play a lovely layer of nostalgia. Cynthia Bermudes does a wonderful job with diplomat wardrobes over four seasons in the Swiss outdoors. Jeffrey E. Salzberg provides ambient lighting design; Mac Young, scenic and projection designer, creates a forest on white canopies. Paul Munafo, as ever, is the master of master carpenters, Boaz Kirschenbaum is technical director, and Timothy Toothman stage manager.

“A Walk in the Woods,” Wednesdays through Saturdays through July 18, at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. Order tickets through mvplayhouse.org.