Chicago Theater Review: BLIND DATE (Goodman)

by Lawrence Bommer on January 30, 2018

in Theater-Chicago

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REHABILITATING REAGAN

Putting us backstage as history happens, Goodman Theatre’s world premiere Blind Date generously or doggedly tells audiences more than they knew (or perhaps want to) about a nearly forgotten meeting of the minds. Drawing heavily from the somewhat fictionalized memoirs of Edmund Morris, a Ronald Reagan biographer who had constant access to the Great Communicator, Cuban-American playwright Rogelio Martinez reprises a seminal 1985 encounter in Geneva, Switzerland. Center stage are R.R. and Mikhail Gorbachev, leaders of their superpowers assembled to consider a treaty to slow or halt nuclear proliferation and prevent World War III.

Engaging despite a challenging 150-minute span, this inaugural staging by artistic director Robert Falls showcases ten of Chicago’s most alpha actors. Their superb storytelling skills deliver the fascinating and well-researched details in Martinez’s episodic, sardonic and often gossipy slice of the past. A theme that runs through the many one-on-one scenes is the clash between any hopes for a securer future and the geopolitical biases, not to mention psychological divides, that perversely and unpredictably thwart progress.

Blinders to a successful negotiation is the xenophobic American prejudice against Russian alcoholism and Communist obstructionism. There’s also the cynical U.S. strategy to force the “evil empire” to spend its limited resources on armaments to counter Reagan’s absurd “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative: The intent was to destroy their economy (which it did, along with the Soviet Union four years later).

Much like Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods (remarkably similar both in characterizations and content), Blind Date roots big changes in small moments, turning points that fascinate because we’re present at their creation. Equally intriguing is how Martinez’s partisans regularly step out of scenes, indulging in sudden narration or commentaries filled with catty, deadpan asides.

With the first act setting up the battle of the titans and the second act delivering the less-than-decisive results of the Reagan-Gorbachev powwow, Blind Date builds from a series of scenes between well-contrasted couples in or out of synch. Initially, we meet the pragmatic ones — George Schultz (Jim Ortlieb), the wary Secretary of State, and his counterpart Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze (rascally Steve Pickering), projecting an uncertain present onto their grandchildren’s hoped-for future. They painstakingly set up the protocols that get disrupted by their bosses’ private agendas.

Another pivotal duo are the very opposite first ladies. A passive-aggressive ice queen, Deanna Dunagan’s silky-smooth and invisibly controlling Nancy Reagan (a role she was born to play) is a pit bull/tiger mom defending her occasionally addlepated 74-year-old husband and overly influenced by her astrologer Joan. Less confident but equally committed, Mary Beth Fisher’s stage-managing Raisa Gorbachev hopes that her fashion statements can speak what she cannot. Their bitchy luncheon catfight, which founders on tea bags and bad chairs just as Wilde’s Gwendolyn and Cecily squabble over cucumber sandwiches, is hard to believe but easy to enjoy.

Private scenes between the spouses reveal the divergent priorities of the partners. But both couples seem more obsessed with style, appearance, and out-flanking the opposition than with the high stakes of this unilateral confrontation.

Then there are the principals. Delightfully dithering and surprisingly self-effacing, Rob Riley’s Ronald Reagan clearly enjoys the leading role he never got from Hollywood — a “four-picture deal” from America: He remains the former lifeguard who only wishes he had saved more lives. Here’s a (sometimes plagiarizing) “pitchman for democracy” whose use of movie clichés Gorbachev has been warned against. Unlike the pictures, Ronnie knows that no “second take” is possible as he practices how to halt a nuclear strike during the 25 minutes before Armageddon. But we sense that there’s always “a wall” around Ronnie, as Nancy points out, which may well be the Alzheimer’s disease in its early advances.

Younger and equally protective of his country’s agendas, William Dick’s Gorbachev fiercely defends the bone-headed invasion of Afghanistan that Reagan denounces (without the slightest irony that foresight might have granted). But he’s never too stubborn not to seek common ground with a well-intended President. Gradually he comes to grudgingly respect Reagan as a goofy guy who reluctantly sips “acidic” vodka. Gorbachev even offers a warning about an impending California earthquake (among other secrets shared).

Rounding out Martinez’s unusual suspects are Thomas J. Cox as Reagan’s often perplexed but always perceptive biographer, Torrey Hanson’s bellicose defense secretary Casper Weinberger, and Michael Milligan’s press-baiting spokesperson Larry Speakes. Their too-human flaws and frailties flesh out an often absorbing inside look at how history is made like sausage.

No question, there are potent parallels to 2018 in the playwright’s useful but not urgent reclamation project. His congenial, positive-minded and even idealistic Reagan may not square with many who recall the super salesman’s AIDS-ignoring, government-hating, union-busting, and spending-slashing domestic side. (Still, R.R. seems eminence itself compared to the present Oval Office occupant.) Along with fateful adventures in Afghanistan, there’s also painful déjà vu in the references to managing the truth and, as Reagan puts it, the danger of “stupid people voting.”

And, of course, the prospect of rockets launching mass death was hardly solved 33 years ago. Perhaps Reagan’s most astute confession comes as he’s watching, with a very bored Gorbachev, Michael Rennie as an extra-terrestrial ambassador in The Day The Earth Stood Still (“Klaatu borada nicto!”). The acting president wonders why it would take a threat from the skies to make earthlings clear the air, so to speak, of “mutually assured destruction.” Indeed.

photos by Liz Lauren

Blind Date
Goodman Theatre’s Albert Theatre
170 North Dearborn
ends on February 25,2018
for tickets, call 312.443.3800
or visit Goodman Theatre

for more shows,
visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nikki Smith January 30, 2018 at 2:40 pm

Not an easy play to review. Your skill and intelligence shine through.

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