The Cold War arms race provides a provocative backdrop for the Pulitzer Prize finalist A Walk In The Woods, Lee Blessing’s dramedic look at the odd-couple friendship that develops in the late 1980s between a veteran Soviet arms negotiator and his younger American counterpart, now getting a crowd-pleasing revival at Long Beach’s International City Theatre.

A-Walk-In-The-Woods_7NC-300x200 Inspired by a real-life stroll taken by arms negotiators Yuli A. Kvisinsky and Paul H. Nitze in the Geneva woods circa 1982, Blessing’s play expands that single promenade into four seasons of woodsy walks during which Russian Andrey Botvinnik (Tony Abatemarco) and American John Honeyman (David Nevell) start off as adversaries and end up _____. (You fill in the blank.)

The two men could hardly be more mismatched.

John is uptight, Andrey gregarious. Andrey wants to lighten their conversation with a bit of frivolity. John can see no reason not to talk business. John is still new enough at this to be idealistic about the possibilities ahead. Andrey’s years of negotiation have made him a realist (or a cynic, depending on your point of view).

A-Walk-In-The-Woods_9NC-300x200 In either case, though playwright Blessing would seem to share Andrey’s doubts about whether warring nations can ever reach meaningful political agreements, he’s a good deal more optimistic about the potential for unlike minds to meet, at least where friendship is concerned, and if there’s anyone in the audience harboring doubts that by the end of their final walk, both Andrey and John will have been changed for good, that person has apparently managed to miss just about every two-hander ever written.

In any case, regardless of our certainty that springtime Andrey and John will no longer be the twosome we first encountered on a midsummer Geneva afternoon, it’s the getting there that has made A Walk In The Woods a regional theater favorite since it scored a Best Play Tony nomination in its 1988 Broadway debut.

A-Walk-In-The-Woods_6NC-300x200 Director John Henry Davis once again impresses at ICT, both in his imaginative use of scenic designer Christopher Scott Murillo’s abstract woods and in the remarkable pair of performances he has elicited from stage and screen vets Abatemarco and Nevell.

Bucking the recent trend towards casting either John or Andrey as a female protagonist (the better to add a hint of sexual attraction to the pairing?), Davis sticks with Blessing’s original concept, one which works perfectly well for me, especially with two such ideally matched actors.

Following star turns in a pair of previous ICT two-character gems (Red and Trying), Abatemarco once again dazzles, and Nevell (who played uptight to perfection in ICT’s God Of Carnage) matches him every step of the way.

Despite A Walk In The Wood’s somewhat talky first act, the two stars’ lively interplay holds our attention as the all-business John finds himself increasingly frustrated by his Soviet counterpart’s seemingly frivolous banter. Later, both play and performances grow steadily more engrossing and rewarding as each man learns to appreciate what lies beneath the other’s surface.

A-Walk-In-The-Woods_1NC-300x200 Murillo’s striking set (hanging ropes stand in for trees) has been lit with exquisite subtle shadings by Donna Ruzika. Resident properties designers Patty, Gordon, and Christopher Briles and director Davis share credit for the nifty way Andrey and John turn summer into fall and winter into spring. Resident costume designer Kim DeShazo accesorizes Andrey and John’s businesswear with just-right seasonal adornments. Jeff Polunas’s realistic ambient sound design and mood-setting original music along with Anthony Gagliardi’s hair design complete an all-around topnotch ICT production design package.

A Walk In The Woods is produced by caryn desai. Katherine Hoevers is assistant director. Molly McGraw is stage manager and Tim S. Wright assistant stage manager. Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA. Richie Ferris is casting assistant.

Times may have changed since the Cold War’s end, but as long as nuclear missiles remain poised for attack on either side of either ocean, Lee Blessing’s A Walk In The Woods seems unlikely to lose even an iota of its power, evidence of which can be found in International City Theatre’s splendid revival.

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International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
May 5, 2016
Photos: Tracey Roman

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