There's a new bench on the stage of the Booth.
Until a month ago, while "I'm Not Rappaport" held sway, the bench was in Central Park. Now it's in a Swiss forest for Lee Blessing's "A Walk in the Woods."
Again its occupants are two men, this time negotiators for the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Blessing's bittersweet study of two diplomats trying to break through formal barriers is full of harsh truths and troubling wit.
At one point, the Russian chides his counterpart that neither country can afford to be "second in the quest for peace," which he amends to "second in the appearance of the quest for peace." If the world really hated war, he notes, there would be millions of negotiators and two soldiers, rather than the reverse.
We watch the two meet for about a year. They come close to breakthroughs in negotiations, but much closer to understanding why their exercises are futile. "It's not that you and I are failing to make progress," the Russian says. "It's that those who build arms make so much progress."
If I seem to be quoting the wisdom of the Soviet so much, it's because Blessing has dealt his characters uneven hands. The Russian has all the cards - humor, worldliness, charm. The American aptly describes himself as "serious, stiff, even priggish."
Granted this unfairness, Sam Waterston's portrayal of the American seems especially remarkable. Waterston has a poignant earnestness, a "little boy" quality that helps us get past his self-righteousness to the deeply concerned man underneath.
At the end, the Soviet reveals he is going home and wishes him well with his successor. "The new man will not be you," Waterston cries frantically, revealing the depth of his concern and friendship. It is Waterston's most moving work in years.
It is hard to imagine a more perfect actor to play the wily Soviet than Robert Prosky. His pudgy face and beaming expression seem just right for a peasant elevated to power. He is an elegant actor whose simplest gestures have a beguiling beauty.
The two do spellbinding work under Des McAnuff's taut direction. A few times the play seems coy or tendentious, but the two are so powerful we never forget it's about frail men fighting quixotically against their awareness of futility.
The set is graceful, the costumes catch the understated humor, and there is lovely music. All in all, "A Walk in the Woods" is a splendid evening of theater.
Long live the bench!
Two men walk in the agreeable woods outside Geneva - an old, affably cynical Russian, a much younger, eagerer-beaverer American. They are arms negotiators, trading diplomacy in the rareified, almost sterile air of the Swiss mountains.
They imagine they are playing some kind of super-power chess, a game of ballistic missiles, strikes, and deterrents.
As the seasons change the leaves, the younger man discovers what the elder already really knew: they are not actually players, but pawns in some deeper ritualistic game already checkmated by history and the future.
The phrase "a play of ideas" sounds as cold and dry as dusty charity, but Lee Blessing's "A Walk in the Woods," which opened last night at the Booth Theater is just that, yet much more.
Luckily, the playwright is an unusual writer of wit and resource, as well as an artist of considerable technique. The theater should count this singular Blessing as a new potential force.
His two men on a bench amid the neutral trees of white-on-white Switzerland are, almost without realizing it, devoted to "the quest for the appearance of the quest for peace."
Blessing has based his play on a small but actual historic event, much gussied up and theatricalized, but this is only important in giving the atmosphere a knowing smidgin of authenticity.
What makes this nihilistic anecdote for our times dramatically fascinating is partly Blessing's gift for the provocative phrase, such as when his Russian remarks that "History is geography over time," or his epigramatic comment that "Formality is merely anger with its hair combed."
Then there is the playwright's feel for character and its conflict, and, most of all, the chill horror at the base of this situation so urbanely uncovered.
Like the Russian, most in the audience will learn little, for as a civilization we have accepted cynicism as a way of trust, the alternative being too terrible to contemplate seriously.
The disconcerting Russian bear, here ranging from Teddy to grizzled, and the baffled, ugly, well-meaning American basset hound that Blessing presents as his negotiators, are not so much national stereotypes as our own stereotyped thinking-man attitudes toward nuclear disarmament.
We realize the balance of power, the demands of super-national egos, and that the whole pattern of arms talks has been accompanied by a spiraling arms build-up that seems as inevitable as the stately pavane of the talks themselves.
For that matter, we know that the real danger is, as Blessing puts it, that "a computer will declare war on another computer because the computer got nervous," and we identify with Blessing's Russian (cast as rational man as counterposed with the role of emotional man played by his American) whom he sums up the discussions by saying: "Our talks together have been a very great failure. But - a successful one."
At the end, when Blessing and his diplomats have led us through the whirligig of our confirmed fears, we rest content at having foreseen the questions, disconsolate that the answers are just as foreseeably dusty.
Although the play may alert us to gentle danger and even provoke us to uncomplicated thought, it is a lovely play that is, above everything, entertaining. The nihilistic pill is sugar-coated with fun - just like our civilization, that could go to the grave chuckling.
Part of this necessary sugar-coat has been applied by Des McAnuff's super-smooth, authoritative staging and the masterly performances by the two disarmingly natural and credible actors, Robert Prosky and Sam Waterston.
Waterston has the more difficult role. He has to appear humorless, priggish, and yet likable. He is constantly the second-banana in the debate, but his intelligence needs to be as transparent as his integrity.
Waterston never lets go of his role in the dialectic, clinging stubbornly to the play's arguments, always like a knight in a shining raincoat.
For Prosky the evening is easier. He has most of the laugh-lines, his sympathetic character has a world-weary charm, and the author has given him an almost Shavianly-predictable unexpectedness.
But both men, sitting in Bill Clarke's diplomat's arcadia of a setting, with chill autumn leaves and even exploding spring flowers, do wonderfully well. And among McAnuff's choices should be credited the unusually effective music, sound and silence provided by the score of Michael S. Roth and the sound of G. Thomas Clark, while the seasonal lighting of Richard Riddell has an apt beauty.
A play of ideas, then. I must admit that "A Walk in the Woods" confirms ideas rather than suggests them - that is its own limitation of arms - but it is good to have on Broadway a play that suggests intelligence as well as emotion, and puts a questioning echo where its laugh is.
In one of several funny passages that threaten to quicken ''A Walk in the Woods'' into nearly a trot, a Soviet disarmament negotiator tells his American counterpart that the real blame for their nations' nuclear deadlock belongs to Switzerland. With its bucolic mountains and centuries of peace, Switzerland is so soothing that it drains the urgency from diplomatic talks about Armageddon. ''We should put the table at the bottom of a missile silo,'' argues the Russian, Andrei Botvinnik (Robert Prosky), to the American, John Honeyman (Sam Waterston). ''Then we would negotiate.'' It's a smart point, and one only wished the evening's playwright, Lee Blessing, had taken it fully to heart. Like his two characters, Mr. Blessing is an earnest foe of the arms race, frustrated by the intractable political games superpowers play with the destiny of mankind. But as a piece of theater, ''A Walk in the Woods'' is the esthetic equivalent of Switzerland, and not only because its setting is ''a pleasant woods on the outskirts of Geneva.'' The play at the Booth fudges the distinctions of actual international politics and arms negotiations, choosing instead to telescope the messy, life-or-death conflict into a sentimental relationship between two likable envoys. Because the candied antagonisms of that relationship are more reminiscent of ''The Odd Couple'' or ''I'm Not Rappaport'' than harsh reality, Mr. Blessing has made a subject as volatile as the bomb seem as pleasantly cool - and as safely remote - as his neutral forest setting.
The play's premise does spring from recent history. In 1982, the negotiators Paul H. Nitze and Yuli A. Kvitsinsky left the official Geneva sessions for an unofficial ''walk in the woods'' and achieved a breakthrough, soon rejected by their Governments. As is his right, the playwright has changed more than the names in fictionalizing the events; Honeyman and Botvinnik resemble their antecedents in neither age nor career. But Mr. Blessing's fictional liberties, however welcome an alternative to ersatz docudrama, all seem designed to dilute rather than heighten his fascinating subject. The play's walks in the woods take place in an unspecified year and involve debates over unidentified ''tiny points'' demanded by unnamed leaders of undefined ideology.
The characters are nearly as generic as their vague negotiating positions. Andrei - a juicy role for Mr. Prosky - is a jovial, wry, cynical bear of a Russian, with a taste for American pop culture (country-western music, Mickey Mouse) and a desire to personalize the bargaining sessions with declarations of friendship and frivolous small talk. He's as much a cliche of the glasnost Soviet Union as the wily, cold-blooded spy was of the ''Evil Empire.'' Mr. Waterston's younger John is a formal, humorless, sanctimonious Mr. Deeds - a prissy Felix to Mr. Prosky's gregarious Oscar.
As is typical of stage pairings of this formulaically symbiotic type, the men must each teach the other a lesson by the time they reach their bittersweet parting: the burned-out old Russian will inevitably warm to the American's youthful idealism even as the American will at last start to lighten up. The men's growing friendship in turn conveys Mr. Blessing's unsophisticated, if quintessentially American, political message. ''A Walk in the Woods'' tells us that all people and nations are fundamentally alike, and that all world problems could be solved if only the adversaries might build mutual trust by chatting face to face on a park bench. The villains are the faceless, self-aggrandizing leaders (of all regimes) who subvert the people's will, insuring that progress in arms negotiations is at best an illusion leading to a new military buildup.
The play's other, unassailable polemical points, whether about the erotic properties of nuclear warheads or the devastation they unleash (''If we fail now, history itself will disappear''), will not come as news to anyone conversant with Stanley Kubrick's ''Dr. Strangelove'' or the rhetoric of Jonathan Schell. Mr. Blessing does invent his own bright jokes and aphorisms along the way, most of them given to Mr. Prosky. The Russian defines ''formality'' in diplomacy as ''anger with its hair combed'' and notes that without nuclear weapons, the United States and the Soviet Union would be ''nothing more than a rich, powerful Canada and an enormous Poland.'' Though Mr. Prosky sometimes evinces a cuteness that was not apparent in the similarly avuncular figures he played in ''Glengarry Glen Ross'' and the film ''Broadcast News,'' his is a masterful portrait of political cunning, always entertaining to behold. One only wishes that Andrei's evaporated hope were not symbolized by a dry-tear-duct condition calling for the repeated, treacly onstage administration of eye drops.
As his straight man, Mr. Waterston starts out shrill, with hot-under-the-collar self-righteousness and red-faced slow burns in Act I, leaving him nowhere to go but up (into yelling) in his well-written soliloquy of catharsis in Act II. Des McAnuff, the director, might have helped modulate this performance, but his energy instead seems devoted to camouflaging, by any shameless means possible, the play's static focus on park-bench dialogues. To this end, the more metaphysical speeches about weaponry are accompanied by wistful background music, and the passing of time is marked by seasonal changes in Bill Clarke's pretentious set, which frames the forest with what looks like a Holiday Inn conference room. Autumn arrives with an attenuated shower of perfectly shaped yellow leaves, winter with a burning rubber-scented fog effect and then, finally, spring with an abundant sprouting of blossoms. Like Mr. Blessing, this garden stands for peace, but it typifies ''A Walk in the Woods'' that the flowers bearing that transcendent hope look all too conspicuously like plastic.