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.
upperWETside: So is it purest coincidence that, at the moment that tensions between the US and Russia are at their most intense point in a generation — when the proverbial Hotline starts getting hot again — the character of John Honeyman appears once more? Did you subconsciously summon him back into being when you got the germ of the idea for this sequel? And does the conflict with his right-wing son suggest that our internal squabbles comprise a sort of new Cold War?
LEE BLESSING: I don’t think of it as a direct sequel. It brings the character of Honeyman forward 25 to 30 years into the future, when he’s more or less retired, remarried, with a new son, working for a think tank…he’s been on the sidelines for a while.
It’s hard to handicap our relative interest in US-Russian relations. Things are sort of boiling up again, and pulling Honeyman into our era allows us to look at the nature of our current, very polarized, political debate.
His ways aren’t very much in favor, at a time when the nature of international threats has changed from conferences over limiting nuclear warheads, to a much more multifaceted and complex kind of thing. He’s got different sorts of concerns…he’s dealing with both of his marriages, in the context of our domestic politics.
I became fascinated with the personal side of his life…the relationships that he left back in the United States; the things that caused his son to become disaffected. Going to Geneva, it turns out, had a significant effect.
A WALK IN THE WOODS remains your most critically hailed work for the stage, but even it is not immune to being caught in the crossfire of the Civil Cold War…there’s been a reassessment of it in recent years, by a certain faction of our fractured debating society, that says you favored the Commie character’s point of view, to the extent of making him the wiser and funnier of the two; giving him all the best lines in the play…
I flipped the ages of the two men who inspired the story…I needed a situation where the Russian was more experienced, more vain, more of a calming presence really; versus the more idealistic, passionate approach embodied by the American.
Do we get to find out whatever became of old Andrey from the first play?
He doesn’t appear in the new play, of course, but he does have a part to play, in a way.
He would have welcomed the fall of the Soviet Union. He was enamored of the West, to a certain extent, and I think that he would have come back to Leningrad and lived out his days in happy retirement. When the USSR dissolved, when Russia backed away from its expanded borders, suddenly these countries were placed in a position where they had to deal directly with all these things that weren’t on their screen before. It was a movement that had come due, and in many ways it’s still playing out.
Well, you’re no stranger to making your own viewpoints known in your dramatic works, like A USER’S GUIDE TO HELL, FEATURING BERNIE MADOFF or scripts featuring George Bush and Justice Harry Blackmun as the lead characters. One of the plays that was previously staged at New Jersey Rep, WHORES, was a particularly provocative piece; a flight of fancy that took off from this awful real life story of a bunch of nuns getting raped and murdered in South America, in a way that was, well, funny and disrespectfully satirical. As a theater reviewer I took some shit for going on record as liking it…I even heard from the sister of one of the murdered nuns…but the play had an undeniable energy, and the actor who played the main generalisimo was having a blast; dancing around and deliriously happy…
Whores is the best play I’ve never had published. It’s entirely disrespectful! The respectful dramatizations of that story had already been written and filmed, and Whores is a very sexual play…which of course is what really bothers people about it. We could have, and did, talk about the most horrible acts of violence in it, but put the actresses in lingerie, make even one mention of sex, and the viewers start to get nervous.
The real outrage in the story was about our State Department having invited the generals who carried out this crime, to retire in Florida. The only way I could effectively even wrap my head around that was to adopt the approach of treating it as the most outrageous satire. Of course, political satire traditionally doesn’t go over too well with American audiences…they’ll watch something by Dario Fo and say that it’s okay, but if an American writer uses the same satirical technique, they get all up in arms.
Well, in MOUNTAINS as in WHORES, you’re getting up in people’s faces in ways that are delightfully unbecoming of a respectable playwright. You must take a certain glee in challenging the audience; in knowing that you’re responsible for numerous post-show arguments, and rides home in stony silence.
There are times when theater must attack the audience, rather than being some bourgeois ritual designed to make you feel safe and warm. This play asks a lot of questions. At its best, theater makes the audience ask the hard questions of themselves.
Take it here for tickets ($35 previews; $40 regular performances) to the show that continues through May 25.