Power play: The art of arms negotiation explodes onstage in TimeLine’s ‘A Walk in the Woods’

David Parkes and Janet Ulrich Brooks in TimeLine’s “A Walk in the Woods.”

I took a negotiation class in grad school a few years ago. Despite all the fancy theories, case studies and tactics covered in the course, I think I actually learned more about the art of negotiation watching A Walk in the Woods, Lee Blessing’s 1988 Pulitzer Prize-nominated comedy currently being produced by TimeLine Theatre at Theater Wit.

(TimeLine’s space on Wellington Ave. is booked for the Chicago premiere of Lee Hall’s The Pitman Painters, which is set to open in a few weeks).

Two arms negotiators — one an eager, stubborn American and the other an equally stubborn Soviet — are attempting to come up with some sort of arms limitation agreement. The American will not back down until an adequate proposal (which has been drafted by the U.S., by the way) is agreed upon, and the Soviet… would prefer a walk in the woods peppered by some “frivolous” conversation.

The American, John (a pitch-perfect David Parkes), clearly identifies this as a diversion tactic, but the Soviet merely smiles and maintains that she simply wants to be friends. (That’s right, you read that correctly: the Soviet, typically played by a man, is here played by a woman – the ideally cast Janet Ulrich Brooks. The only modifications to the script, as far as I’m aware, are a few pronoun changes and her character’s name, which is now “Anya.” And it works like gangbusters.)

Brooks and Parkes generate sparks as they play out a well worn negotiation rule: the person with the least investment holds the power. Some sample dialogue:

“What do you hate,” asks Anya as she looks up at John with a spirited twinkle in her eye.

After groans of irritation that important conversations are being pushed aside, yet again, for idle chatter, he mutters, “Brown suits.”

“Brown suits?” guffaws the Soviet. “There’s a difference between frivolous and boring.”

And the American seethes with irritation.

Now who holds the power?

Eventually, this power duo forms a connection, but it stems from the mutual understanding that they are merely pawns in this crazy arms race. The American deflates and the Soviet shrugs. “We are friends,” Anya again maintains despite John’s stubborn contentions otherwise.

So, yeah. Who’d have thought a play about nuclear arms negotiation would make for such great comedy? I know I wasn’t expecting to enjoy myself as much as I did. And TimeLine’s production is fantastic. See it.

“A Walk in the Woods” plays at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. through November 20. More info here >

Note: To commemorate 10th anniversary of September 11, TimeLine will hold two readings of “The Guys” by Anne Nelson, starring acclaimed Chicago actors Francis Guinan and Ora Jones, on Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 7 pm and Monday, September 12, 2011 at 7 pm at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave. Ticket are free, but donations will be accepted, with all proceeds to directly benefit Ignite the Spirit, a non-profit organization founded in 2003 that provides assistance to Chicago’s emergency responders in times of hardship. More info here >

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