Mountain Madness: John Little, Katrina Ferguson, Eva Kaminsky and Michael Zlabinger star in New Jersey Repertory’s world premiere of A VIEW OF THE MOUNTAINS, Lee Blessing’s follow-up to his Pulitzer nominated A WALK IN THE WOODS. (photo by SuzAnne Barabas)
Back in 1988 — at the tail end of a Cold War that proved pretty fertile fodder for highbrow drama and low-blow satire alike — a playwright by name of Lee Blessing crafted a two-hander that wore its message of human engagement on its sleeve, and took it all the way to Broadway.
A nominee for both a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize — and adapted to TV with its stage cast intact — A Walk in the Woods placed a passionately principled young American arms negotiator named John Honeyman (Sam Waterston), and a wry and worldly old Soviet named Andrey Botvinnik (Robert Prosky), in a neutral-ground setting far from the brinksmanship and blustering of the conference room.
Here in 2014, John Honeyman lives again; not as a John Le Carre sort of weary warrior called back in from the cold, but as the man-out-of-time figure at the center of A View of the Mountains, a follow-up (of sorts) to Woods — as well as a scenario that trades the 20th century arms race for its millennial equivalent (the weapons-grade rhetoric of the amped-up, ramped-up “national debate”), and the sardonic Soviet for a more homegrown antagonist: Honeyman’s Republican son from his first marriage.
As seen in a world premiere engagement currently on display at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — where previously produced Blessing scripts have included Eleemosynary and Whores — Mountains finds the Honeyman character (John Little, adding another role to his gallery of patriarchs in crisis) living with his heiress second wife (Katrina Ferguson) and a teenage son named for the play’s Andrey character (Jon Erik Nielsen platooning with Jared Rush), in an upstate New York retreat framed as a sparsely appointed and highly stylized simulacrum of the real world.
He’s also contending with a conflict that goes beyond mere daddy-issue angst: estranged son Will (Michael Zlabinger) is now a United States Senator who’s been short-listed for the running mate slot in the next presidential election — a resolutely right-wing rising star whose entire career is based on a complete refutation of the father who neglected his original family way back when. Under the direction of Evan Bergman (Saving Kitty, Jericho), things really come to a head when the veteran negotiator turns blackmailer; threatening to rattle a long-fogotten skeleton in the junior Senator’s closet unless he does nothing less than withdraw completely from public life.
Put aside any thoughts of the father-son thing being at the heart of this one-act piece, however — the play packs a thermonuclear punch in the person of Gwynn (Eva Kaminsky), the young pol’s campaign manager wife, and a stridently one-stop generator of negative energy who scans for listening devices, tests food and drinks for poison, threatens to beat and tie up the other characters, treats even her husband with contempt and basically makes the darkly ambitious Lady Macbeth look like dear Little Nell. Blessing writes here with needle-sharp pen and the most slash ‘n burn sort of character dynamics — and Kaminsky takes ownership of the proceedings with a love-to-hate performance that matches the author’s anything-but-subtle style.
The playwright, who made the opening-weekend trip from his California home to downtown Long Branch (on a particularly grim week marked by a leaper’s suicide from the neighborhood’s 500-foot radio tower), spoke to your upperWETside Control Voice prior to the first preview.