Where: Goodman Theatre, Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through Feb. 25
By ANNE SPISELMAN
There’s something vaguely comforting about “Blind Date,” Rogelio Martinez’s behind-the-scenes look at the 1985 first meeting between then U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, newly chosen general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Part of a series on the Cold War era, the play reminds us that no matter how dire the situation and daunting the political differences, as long as we manage not to blow up the world, hope persists.
Martinez’s optimism shows in the humorous spin he puts on events, and Goodman Theatre’s world premiere directed by Robert Falls enhances that approach with laser-sharp timing and rapier wit. Although in a comedy historical figures we remember well can easily morph into caricatures, here they have a kind of heightened reality that for the most part doesn’t go too far.
That’s partly because Martinez focuses our attention more on two men who may not be as firmly fixed in our memories: U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Eduard Shevardnadze. Brilliantly played respectively by a deadpan, droll Jim Ortlieb and an effusive, sarcastic Steve Pickering, they’re first seen in a Washington, DC restaurant sparring while trying to negotiate an initial contact between their bosses and the etiquette of ordering martinis and eating shrimp cocktail.
After Gorbachev (William Dick) rejects Reagan’s (Rob Riley) invitation to come to Washington, the two world leaders engage in some letter writing, which doesn’t solve any differences but does lead to an agreement to meet in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss nuclear-arms reduction and related issues like the Strategic Defense Initiative proposed by the Americans and opposed by the Soviets. What follows are games of one-upmanship orchestrated by them and their wives, as well as Shultz and Shevardnadze.
In fact, Nancy Reagan (Deanna Dunagan) and Raisa Gorbachev (Mary Beth Fisher) come across as savvier than their husbands about some aspects of the competition. Their tête-a-tête over tea is hilarious, thanks mostly to Dunagan’s splendid channeling of the brittle, steely Mrs. Reagan who has mastered the art of the putdown. Her retort to the description of making tea in a samovar is priceless, though Fisher’s prickly Mrs. G is only slightly less acerbic. She’s also acutely aware of the power of appearances, as reflected by Amy Clark’s canny costumes.
Raisa is the one who clues her husband into how to match Reagan, because as nicely embodied by Dick, Gorbachev is a gruff, no-nonsense man who wants to get down to business and doesn’t have much of a taste for niceties. She reminds him that the President is an “actor” with everything that means, and once he takes her advice, he gets the edge.
Riley’s Reagan is the most enigmatic of the bunch and, at times, a bit cartoonish. He’s got the folksy indirect style down so well that the point he’s trying to make often emerges by surprise, but he sometimes seems to exhibit signs of the Altzheimer’s disease with which he was later diagnosed.
Amusing minor players include Edmund Morris (Thomas J. Cox), who inserts himself into the proceedings much as he did into the biography of Reagan he wrote, and Larry Speakes (Michael Milligan), a press secretary portrayed as consummately adept at saying nothing. Of course, the Geneva talks didn’t accomplish much—except an agreement to meet again. But the way was paved for warmer relations, at least for a time.
Riccardo Hernandez’s set featuring gray walls and a towering central cylinder that turns and opens to reveal various scenes creates a monumental, formidable setting for events that unfold on a more human one-to-one scale. Aaron Spivey’s lighting contributes the photographers’ many flash bulbs, among other things. Richard Woodbury’s music and sound design underscore everything as needed.
Martinez doesn’t offer any deep insights, and “Blind Date” has at least three different endings, which need to be reduced to one. (Reagan’s flashback speech doesn’t contribute anything.) But the play is generous in its belief that when men of good will try their best, they can prevail. Would that we had such men around today.