Typically, the two arms negotiators—one American and one Russian—who discuss their political wants and fears in playwright Lee Blessing’s 1998 Pulitzer finalist A Walk in the Woods are played by two men. Keen Company’s rather chintzy but solidly acted revival (playing at the Clurman Theatre Off Broadway until Oct. 18) gives one of those characters a sex change: The production swaps in estimable theater vet Kathleen Chalfant (Wit) as the duo’s playful, Soviet half, which transforms an older gent narrative into more of a mother/son needling session. (The somewhat younger Paul Niebanck plays the stiff American.) Does the switch work?
Yes and no. The play’s theme becomes explicit in a line delivered by one member of the pair: ”Is it a good idea for two arms negotiators to become friends?” But those two negotiators aren’t as overtly opposed to one another as they should be. The production’s maternal slant can be rewarding—unsurprising, since the regal Chalfant is always a welcome presence onstage. The gender flip also makes a few moments newly poignant, as when Chalfant reveals that her character suffers from Sjogren’s Syndrome, an ailment more common to women over 40. But while Niebanck complements his female costar nicely, the political anguish that flows through Blessing’s work gets lost in translation. Though A Walk in the Woods is pleasant much of the time, in the end, it makes you feel like you’re witnessing a grown man exasperated over the cajoling of an overeager aunt—not two firm-minded adults trying to save the world. B-