In ‘Blind Date’ political conversations of a different era speak volumes
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“Blind Date,” Rogelio Martinez’s playfully titled and altogether amusing geopolitical romp — now receiving a high-spirited Goodman Theatre premiere — might very well be described as a “Ron-com.” Ron as in Ronald Reagan, the actor, California governor and 40th President of the United States whose military and foreign policies some say helped bring the Cold War to an end (at least temporarily).
Whatever the long-term historical assessment of all that might be, there can be no doubt that one of the most notable events in late 20th century U.S – Soviet relations occurred during two days in November, 1985: Reagan, (who seemed to have bounced back from a 1981 assassination attempt, but as always was somewhat indecipherable), met for the first time at a summit in Geneva, Switzerland with Mikhail Gorbachev, who had only recently been elected to serve as General Secretary of the Soviet Union, and was something short of secure in his position.
When: Through Feb. 25
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $20 – $75
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
As with all blind dates, the “couple” — with Rob Riley as Reagan and William Dick as Gorbachev — arrive in a state of both apprehension and hopefulness. And their actual meeting (“truthy” as it might or might not be here, and without the presence of translators who are always essential elements in the room) is marked by all the nervous humor, misunderstandings, game-playing and awkwardness of such encounters.
The two men also arrive with their respective wives (Deanna Dunagan as Nancy Reagan and Mary Beth Fisher as Raisa Gorbachev, whose meeting over tea is one of the most irresistibly hilarious and brilliantly played scenes in the show). Also in attendance are the all-important advisors: U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz (Jim Ortlieb as quite the straight arrow), and the sophisticated Eduard Shevardnadze (ideally played by Steve Pickering), the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, whose introductory lunch cannily reveals much about both men.
Dancing around the edges of it all is Edmund Morris (a deft turn by Thomas J. Cox), the British-American historian whose much-anticipated biography of Reagan ultimately became what he described as “a work of nonfiction by an imaginary author” — largely the result of Reagan’s impenetrability.
Most crucially, given the moment in which audiences are now watching “Blind Date,” there is a fully “meta” quality about the play, with the decorum and diplomatic interplay of the historical event free of the social media contagion of the moment, and with the press corps very much of a long-gone era. In fact, if you tend toward nostalgia, you also might delight in the witty, zestful way in which Larry Speakes, Reagan’s Mississippi-bred acting Press Secretary (played with comic panache by Michael Milligan), handles his job. Yet more than anything, there is a sense of constructive peace-making and future-building (if far from naive “trust”) here — one that might just keep mutually assured nuclear destruction at bay.
To be sure, “Blind Date,” directed with great ingenuity by Robert Falls, is no documentary. But the Cuban-born Martinez, who has riffed on the Cold War era in several other plays, captures both the personalities and issues in play, including the Reagan administration’s “Strategic Defense Initiative,” which raised the hackles of the Soviet Union, a nation already suffering from the fallout of its war in Afghanistan, a flailing economy, and Gorbachev’s untested leadership.
Two more wildly different personalities than “Ron” and “Misha” could not have been put in a room together. And yet, for whatever reasons (a mutual wish for a sane approach to major differences), they managed to find some common ground. And now, seen with the power of hindsight, a sort of melancholy overlays the farcical aspects of the play simply because we know Gorbachev’s short tenure ultimately led to the arrival of Vladimir Putin, that Reagan’s legacy was laced with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and that nuclear war is no longer a matter of just two sides.
Although Reagan doesn’t always rise above caricature here, Riley brings the quirky, almost endearingly goofy quality of the man to life (with Martinez riffing on the symbiosis between actors and politicians), and Dick (complete with strawberry birthmark on his skull), captures the tension in Gorbachev, who cannot quite get a hold on Reagan, but, with some insightful coaching from Raisa, finds his footing.
Riccardo Hernandez’s revolving set — with a massive gray cylinder at its core that almost suggests a missile — puts a formidable spin on this fast-moving production about men who were, perhaps, not so blind.