PostHeaderIcon History the Way it Was or Was It?

Rob Riley (Ronald Reagan) and William Dick (Mikhail Gorbachev)

Rob Riley (Ronald Reagan) and William Dick (Mikhail Gorbachev)

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met for the first time in 1985. Their Geneva Summit was a high-stakes meeting–two leaders of the only world super-powers at the time–packed with real-world drama. It led to the momentous breakthrough four years later of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the fall of the Berlin Wall. We audience members enter the Goodman Theatre’s production of their new play, “Blind Date” knowing these essential facts.

We take our seats eager to learn more of the behind-the-scenes drama; to go beyond the newspaper headlines of the time and catch any interplay between the two main characters. Playwright Rogelio Martinez likes to plumb news accounts for his plays. “Blind Date” is his latest installment in his treatment of Cold War episodes, the others being the trilogy“Ping Pong”, “Born in East Berlin” and “When Tang Met Laika”.

Martinez is being touted as an aspiring playwright able to craft scenes and characters but the ability to generated real dramatic tension is lacking. And, as a political commentator, he struck me as a dud. Thirty years on, we learn nothing new and the action is plodding throughout the first act. In line with those expectations   we brought prior to the curtain, “Blind Date” might better be billed as “Bland Date”.

The play is a slyly comic but only glancing glimpse of  the leaders. We only meet them for the first time after intermission and 90 minutes into the play. Both men had initially been reluctant to meet. Rather than make them the play’s protagonists, Martinez pens an alternate view of the summit. He seems to suggest that the two senior diplomatic advisers, Secretary of State, George Schultz, and Russian Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, and the leaders’ two wives, Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev are the more fascinating figures. Those four characters fuel the play and, only at the end, does Reagan pull a rabbit from his hat and opens a warm relationship with Gorbachev that bears fruit years later.

ary Beth Fisher (Raisa Gorbachev) and Deanna Dunagan (Nancy Reagan)

ary Beth Fisher (Raisa Gorbachev) and Deanna Dunagan (Nancy Reagan)

The entire first act deals with the diplomatic dance between Shultz and Shevardnadze as they plot making the meeting happen. Martinez fails to give either man intelligent, Mamet-like dialogue while Shultz appears as the weaker adversary.  Actor Jim Ortlieb projected little energy in his matter-of-fact delivery of Shultz while Steve Pickering was more combative and forceful. The same dynamic was at play in Mary Beth Fisher’s portrayal of the shrewd Raisa Gorbachev. Deanna Dunagan, a fine Chicago actress, was good but needed to display more of Nancy Reagan’s cunning. Martinez might have made more of her astrological obsession. I wish I had more to say about the acting of actors Rob Riley (Ronald Reagan) and William Dick (Mikhail Gorbachev) but there was too little of it to matter. Both men bore some passing resemblance to their historical counterparts.

As a great admirer of director Robert Falls’ work over several decades, I was truly surprised by how little stagecraft and juice he injected into the script. The action felt under-powered, a trait I don’t associate with Falls’ at all and not how a world summit should be seen. I left the theater knowing no more than when I entered and missing the jolt that genuine political theater generates.

“Blind Date” plays at Goodman Theatre through February 25. For tickets and information, call the box office at 312/443-3800 or go online to GoodmanTheatre.org.

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