If you’re in your 40s or older, you may remember a time when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were two superpowers whose frosty relationship led to jokes – not so funny in 2018 – like President Ronald Reagan saying the following during a weekly radio address sound check in August 1984: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
With the publicity that comment received, it was extremely unlikely Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would be able to set aside their personal differences and have any kind of civil, one-on-one meeting to de-escalate tensions. But only 15 months later, they had their “blind date” in Geneva, Switzerland: a summit on diplomatic relations and the arms race. How the summit came to be and the private and public discussions between the two world leaders – and between their wives – is the subject of a world-premiere play, “Blind Date,” at the Goodman Theatre. And, while that seems like a storyline that might only appeal to serious-minded Cold War buffs, it’s actually a very well-written and funny show about rational leaders who shared the common goal of a peaceful world.
Playwright Rogelio Martinez focuses our attention on the Reagans and the Gorbachevs, but also on two key architects of the summit: U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Eduard Shevardnadze. Jim Ortlieb (as Shultz) and Steve Pickering (as Shevardnadze) do a great job of drawing us into this story when they have a cautious, but cordial, restaurant meeting in the first scene. The script allows them to interact with each other, but to also talk directly to the audience to provide us with context (e.g., Shultz using his hands to eat a shrimp cocktail: “I wanted him to believe we were just friends”). By including these comments, and by allowing other characters to talk directly to the audience, the audience is given a variety of perspectives and plenty of chances to understand and to laugh (e.g., Shevardnadze sharing with Shultz the Russians’ intelligence about a certain tattoo Shultz has on a typically unseen body part).
Beautifully directed by Goodman Theatre Artistic Director Robert Falls, “Blind Date” gives audience members a glimpse behind the Iron Curtain and into a time in our history that resonates today. Martinez clearly has researched this period, and while he may have taken some literary license – (he’s quoted in the Playbill saying, “The events in the play did occur. But maybe not exactly in the same way they occur on stage.”) – the details here seem very real.
Particularly worthy of praise: the acting of the entire ensemble. Deanna Dunagan doesn’t just look like Nancy Reagan thanks to excellent hair and makeup, she is the First Lady, from her astrologer-guided planning to her painful arranged tea with Raisa Gorbachev (Mary Beth Fisher as Mikhail’s fashion-focused spouse) to her pointed comments to her husband’s biographer Edmund Morris (Thomas J. Cox often providing narration for the audience’s better understanding). Rob Riley, as Reagan, doesn’t attempt to do an imitation of the president (this isn’t “Saturday Night Live” or a Capitol Steps performance), but the folksiness of Reagan shines through, especially when he shows Gorbachev a famous science-fiction film and uses the closing lines to help reach agreement. Gorbachev (William Dick) isn’t sure if he should trust Reagan, but Dick’s performance shows us a man who wants to believe he’s able to make a difference.
Congratulations to Ricardo Hernandez, the set designer, who found an ingenious way to use rotating walls and parts of the stage to segue from one scene to the next. Scene changes, with minimal transition music, went very smoothly and quickly.
In summary, February is a cold month. What better time to enjoy a play that focuses on global warming of relationships.
• Paul Lockwood is a past president of TownSquare Players and an occasional community theater actor, appearing in more than 30 plays, musicals and revues since he and his wife moved to Woodstock in 2001. Recent shows include “On Golden Pond,” “9 to 5: The Musical,” “A Christmas Carol” (2014, 2016), “Into the Woods” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.” He’s also performed in Get LIT(erary) and Williams St. Repertory LAB Series dramatic readings.
WHEN: Through Feb. 25
WHERE: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago
COST & INFO: Before Twitter, Tinder and 24/7 news, two of history’s most enigmatic leaders – Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev – meet to halt the arms race. A crafty game of one-upmanship ensues, while their wives engage in a passive-aggressive tango over tea. Tickets start at $25. Tickets and information: www.goodmantheatre.org or 312-443-3800.