Reagan and Gorbachev meet cute atop a pile of nukes in Blind Date | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Reagan and Gorbachev meet cute atop a pile of nukes in Blind Date

Gaping conceptual hole aside, the Goodman Theatre staging is entertaining.


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R ogelio Martinez's Blind Date is far from solemn or eerie. I'd say the dominant tone is a wry humor. But it's a ghost play all the same. Which is to say that whatever power it has derives from the unseen presences that haunt it, from Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin to Barack Obama and Donald Trump. In fact, the personalities of the whole cold war and its consequences rattle around its periphery like a convention of Jacob Marleys. Thing is, neither Martinez nor Robert Falls, who directed this world premiere for Goodman Theatre, comes out and acknowledges that the ghosts are there. And that's a problem. One of several, actually.

The blind date of the title happened in 1985, when U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Eduard Shevardnadze fixed up their bosses, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, arranging for them to meet in Geneva for two fabulous days of talks, mostly about their nuclear arsenals. Reagan had already called the USSR an evil empire by then, and announced his Strategic Defense Initiative (aka "Star Wars"): a space-based antimissile system that would've nullified the concept of mutual assured destruction on which the cold-war balance of power was based. Gorbachev, meanwhile, needed to look strong internationally in order to carry out his extensive reforms, perestroika and glasnost, at home. Add to all that the Uncle-Vanya-meets-Ward-Cleaver disparity in character between the two men and the matchup seemed uncomfortable at best.

Yet they hit it off well enough to meet three more times over the next three years, in Reykjavik (before it was a cool destination), Washington, D.C., and Moscow. Their biggest genuine accomplishment was signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, but the summits were as valuable for the bonding they encouraged between the two leaders as for anything else. Reagan left Moscow saying he'd taken back the evil empire remark.

Martinez has a peculiar, three-pronged way of telling this story. One prong focuses, naturally enough, on the principal players, Reagan and Gorbachev, as well as their wives, Nancy and Raisa, whom we see practicing their own sharp-elbowed, sotto voce form of diplomacy on their husbands and each other. Another concentrates, also naturally, on Shultz and Shevardnadze, the resourceful underlings who find themselves forming a team of rivals as they attempt to make history. The final prong doesn't feel so natural. It gives us presidential biographer Edmund Morris as an occasional narrator, supplying a quizzical counterpoint to people and events as he floats through the play. I guess Morris can be said to represent the audience in that regard, but despite Thomas J. Cox's engaging performance, he comes across as little more than a narrative flourish. Which is appropriate in a way, Morris being the guy who wrote Dutch, the notoriously metabiographical "memoir" of Reagan featuring a character named "Edmund Morris."

The real problem with Blind Date, though, isn't that it tries to accommodate a superfluous role. Just the opposite: The problem is that it excludes all those ghosts that are needed to provide context. And maybe more than context, a sense of the tragic. Within four years of the Geneva summit the Berlin Wall fell. Two years after that, the Soviet Union itself did the same. After an astoundingly wild ride, Gorbachev handed leadership over to Boris Yeltsin, whose flounderings throughout the 1990s opened the way for Putin. The United States' failure to cope with the collapse of a dependable enemy has played out across the administrations of Reagan's five successors, causing us to veer back and forth over all kinds of precipices until this moment, when nukes are in resurgence and an American president is being investigated for what he or his aides may know about Russian influence on a federal election.

In short, the Reagan-Gorbachev summits weren't a glimmer of hope, as Blind Date would have it. They were a last gasp. The narrative flourish Martinez needs is the one that makes even so much as a nod at subsequent events.

Still, gaping conceptual hole aside, Blind Date can be pretty entertaining. Falls gives the script a crisp, clever staging full of lovely moments. And his cast constitute a kind of summit in themselves, featuring at least nine of the finest veteran actors in Chicago. Jim Ortlieb and Steve Pickering parry each other neatly as Shultz and Shevardnadze. Ditto Deanna Dunagan and Mary Beth Fisher as Nancy and Raisa. Dunagan, in particular, offers a marvelous combination of smoothness and stilettos-the knives, not the shoes. William Dick has found his role as Gorbachev. And Rob Riley makes a great Reagan, wandering through the cold war like Chauncey Gardiner from Being There, with a sense of reality as fungible as Trump's.   v

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