CAN WE TALK? : In Laguna, Negotiators Take 'Walk in the Woods'

Jan Herman covers theater for The Times Orange County Edition.

The Laguna Playhouse has outdone itself with a perfect staging of "A Walk in the Woods," its best production in years. The revival at the Moulton Theatre in Laguna Beach is so captivating in all particulars--deft acting, fine direction and a beautiful mounting--that the temptation to use the old cliche is overwhelming: "Run, don't walk, to see this show."

Lee Blessing's two-character comedy not only deals with a provocative issue generally left to the political pundits but is entertaining without being gimmicky and funny without resorting to shtick.

It is about a pair of nuclear-disarmament negotiators still operating on the old assumptions of the Cold War, and the 1987 play's relevance, which appeared to wane with the arrival of glasnost , has even regained an edge due to more recent developments in the Soviet Union.

Both negotiators are caught in a paradoxical reality hinged on official rhetoric and contradictory meaning, public optimism and private despair, illusory action, thought divorced from feeling, superpowers living on mythology.

Andrey Botvinnik, played with canny exuberance by Michael C. Miller, is a cagey but warm Soviet diplomat whose cynical wisdom and sense of irony have been sharpened by years of deadlocked talks in Geneva with a succession of American negotiators.

John Honeyman, played with repressed energy by Jim Ryan, is a recently promoted U.S. technocrat who has just arrived in Geneva with fresh proposals, diplomatic naivete, a lumpish personality that is part provincial stiffness and part bureaucratic aloofness, and an earnest desire to reach agreement on a treaty.

Just how these very different men finally come to terms with each other as people, to say nothing of how they personalize the issues that bring them together as negotiators, is what makes "Walk" such a compelling piece of theater.

Botvinnik's witty, ingratiating, folksy charm masks a deep resignation that all the years of stalling have produced in him. Miller portrays him like a giant-sized imp with a purse-lipped smile that, depending on its many shadings, conveys bemusement or slyness or curiosity.

But the aphoristic Soviet diplomat also can be stern, mordantly suggesting that the only way to get the talks off dead center would be to "put a (negotiating) table at the bottom of a missile silo" instead of at the top of the peaceful Swiss mountains. And he can be eloquent, as when he chastises Honeyman for using technospeak in ordinary conversation. It makes Botvinnik feel as if he is "falling away from the Earth, receding into the darkness."

Miller's Russian-accented performance as Botvinnik, the showier of the two roles, is impeccable and scintillating. He is better than Robert Prosky was in the Broadway production of "Walk." But in some ways Ryan has the more difficult task: how to be colorless without being boring. His portrayal of Honeyman, a closet idealist at bottom, rings as true as Sam Waterston's.

What: The Laguna Playhouse production of "A Walk in the Woods," by Lee Blessing.

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 p.m., through April 7.

Where: The Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Laguna Canyon Rd. exit. South to theater near downtown area.

Wherewithal: $14 to $18.

Where to call: (714) 494-8021.

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