By Julian J. Frazin
Michael Best & Friedrich | Entertainment Critic
May it please the court…
No one would fault you for thinking, Sondheim, upon hearing the title of Lee Blessing's play "A Walk in the Woods," TimeLine Theatre Company's current production being presented at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. After all, it was Stephen Sondheim who created "Into the Woods," a musical of a similar title. To add to the confusion Porchlight Music Theatre's production of Sondheim's "Putting It Together," was also opening down the hall. But you would be mistaken.
"A Walk in the Woods," a two-person play, brilliantly directed and staged by Nick Bowling, is a dramatization of the disarmament treaty talks between the United States and Russia in "a pleasant woods on the outskirts of Geneva from summer, 1984 to spring, 1985." It may be hard to think of that time as "the good old days," but it was a period when, however frustrating it might have been, we at least used to negotiate with our enemies.
The play stars David Parkes as the American John Honeyman, who brings a fresh face and new confidence to the discussions after early years of diplomatic failure. His worthy, but often disconcerting "opponent" is a brash, outspoken and pragmatic Russian, Anya Botvinnik, here beautifully played by Janet Ulrich Brooks, who has weathered many previous disappointing encounters with other American negotiators.
Their characters were inspired by Paul Nitze and Yuli Kvitsinsky and were portrayed on Broadway by Sam Waterston and Robert Prosky and in the London production by Edward Herrmann as the American and the illustrious Alec Guinness as the Russian. This time around, the role of the Russian is taken by a woman, giving it a much different dynamic.
Despite Anya's best, and often very comic, efforts to breakdown Honeyman's resistance to becoming friends and concentrating on what they have in common rather than disputing their differences, the two find their proposals for a just resolution thwarted and rejected by their respective countries.
This a wonderful and surprisingly humorous production. Chalk it up to the acting skills of the two proponents, but also for the simple but extremely effective staging in which the seasonal changes are depicted by the realistic moving projected images by Mike Tutaj, under the magnificent scenic and lighting design of Brian Sidney Bembridge. Lawyers could learn from the personal one-on-one negotiating skills on display.
For those of you who still remember the personal, up-close, face-to-face magic practiced behind the bar and at the tables of a local saloon called Schulien's or the catacombs of the old Ivanhoe Restaurant and Theater (and even for those who never heard of them) you have a special treat awaiting you every Wednesday at the Upstairs Studio of the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. There, two prestidigitators par excellence, P.T. Murphy and David Parr present, "The Magic Cabaret" and entertain you with 75 minutes of uninterrupted (except for laughter and applause) "magic, mystery and mischief" in a most intimate setting.
These two rather cool and comical performers not only amaze you with their dexterity and legerdemain, but also keep you amused with their reminiscences of a time when magicians rather than stand-up comics dominated the Chicago scene. It was a time when international legendary names like Harry Houdini, Harry Blackstone and Howard Thurston as well as local stars like Laurie Ireland, Guy Jarrett and Jay Marshall were featured in Chicago's major theaters and nightclubs.
Since 2007, this very clever pair has kept audiences scratching their heads in wonder by weaving in their confounding illusions with tales of Chicago history. Their mind-boggling finale is a chilling riff on the World's Columbian Exposition and "The Devil in the White City" murders. It's only once a week, so don't miss it.
Obiter dicta: This fall the Chicago Public Library is celebrating the 10th anniversary of "One Book, One Chicago" with its 21st selection, Saul Bellow's iconic Chicago novel "The Adventures of Augie March." Grab a sandwich and make it to the Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago Publishers Gallery, First Floor, 78 E. Washington St., from 12:15 p.m. to 1 p.m. on Thursdays in October for free live staged readings from previous "One Book" selections by the Tony Award-winning Lookingglass Theatre Company.
I rest my case.
"A Walk in the Woods": Three and a half gavels
"The Magic Cabaret": Two and a half gavels