Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member
Photos by Liz Lauren
Some plays just seek to delight or captivate their audience, but others go beyond that. The Goodman Theatre’s newest play, Blind Date, is a history teacher’s best friend: it tells the true story of the historic 1985 Geneva summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that proved the first step in opening relationships between the US and the USSR and, ultimately, led to the latter’s disintegration. But it is also a theatregoer’s best friend: Rogelio Martinez’s script never forgets that its central goal needs to be to entertain rather than instruct, and this is a wonderfully entertaining play.
The play chronicles both the summit and the meetings that led to it, and Martinez’s meticulous research places us right in the middle of history, surrounding us with the figures that made it happen: Reagan (Rob Riley, doing a full-on impersonation), Gorbachev (a fiery William Dick), their wives Nancy (Deanna Dunagan in a brilliant ice queen performance) and Raisa (Mary Beth Fisher, showing that Mrs. Gorbachev was no less an important figure than Mrs. Reagan), George Schultz (Jim Ortlieb in a winning performance that deeply personalizes the former Secretary of State) and Eduard Shevardnadze (Steve Pickering playing the Russian as a passionate, hopeful soul who needs this to work out as much for his family as for his country). Each of these people has their own particular and patriotic agendas as they get together for the summit. The men, of course, are trying to change the world. The women, in several wonderfully rich scenes, are trying to secure the legacies of their husbands. And nothing less than the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
The acting is uniformly excellent, but a special mention needs to go to Ortlieb, Pickering, Dunagan and Fisher. Dunagan’s performance doesn’t humanize Mrs. Reagan as much as it solidifies the impression of her as a very sharp, very dedicated wife. She seems entirely aware of her husband’s less than perfect intellect, but it doesn’t matter: her goal is to make sure that the world sees him as a strong leader. In one exchange with Mrs. Gorbachev, she even flatly denies that Reagan’s divorce was evidence of an error in judgment on his part: “He didn’t make a mistake,” insists the second wife about the first, though something in Dunagan’s delivery lets us know that she is also referring to Nancy herself. As to Fisher, she has a couple of wonderful (private) rejoinders to the First Lady’s steel, though her best scene involves her dressmaker, when we get to see a bit of her own calculating center. The women, who also provide a fair amount of the play’s laughs, both counter and add to the resolve of their stage husbands.
Ortlieb and Pickering, the real centers of the show, have a wonderful sparring relationship as Shultz and Shevardnadze. While Dick and Riley trade impersonations (and Riley’s is often perfect, especially in his physicality and Reaganesque folksy style of line delivery), Ortlieb and Pickering, playing two lesser-known personages, have some room to craft real characters on their own. Their characters are certainly reminiscent of the men they are playing, but what is more clear to the audience is that these men find themselves on the verge of history and each desperately wishes to make it happen. Pickering’s plea to Gorbachev that the USSR is in more terrible shape than anyone is willing to acknowledge is typical: the bold Russian bluster replaced by sincerity. Ortlieb is frequently asked to be slightly outside of the moment as it is happening so he can comment on it, but both his narrative persona and his characterization of Schultz come across as real and honest. The two men who set the table for their bosses’ historic meeting each in his own way (Schultz’s calm demeanor contrasting with Shevardnadze’s more volatile one) bring the history lesson into the realm of the personal.
It all plays out on a Riccardo Hernandez set featuring a double turntable: an outer one for moving people and furniture and an inner one removing and replacing the giant silo-shaped walls that dominate the center of the set. Though the symbolic value of the silo is useful, it is an obtrusive element that hulks over half the stage and takes far too long to move on and off, causing dead moments in what is generally a well-paced and brilliantly directed (by Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls) production. Ultimately I found myself wishing that Hernandez had gone with something less cumbersome. Other production elements, including Aaron Spivey’s lighting, Amy Clark’s spot-on costuming, and Richard Woodbury’s original music fare much better, adding depth to the production without detracting from it. Falls keeps up a strong, quick pace from the outset, and the nearly two and a half hour show never seems that long (except when we are waiting for that set to adjust itself).
Blind Date is a tremendously well-done production, definitely worth seeing despite a few minor issues. It is history writ small with compassion and humor, and it makes a very complicated bit of political machination very easy both to comprehend and enjoy.
Blind Date is now playing at Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn in Chicago, until February 25. Performance times vary; check website. Tickets are available from Goodman Theatre. Half-price tickets are available. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.