"Blind Date" -- ★ ★ ★
"Blind Date" may sound like the name of a fun romantic comedy. Yet this 2017 play by Rogelio Martinez is actually about the first face-to-face meeting of the late Republican President Ronald Reagan and former Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
Now receiving a large-scale Chicago premiere courtesy of Goodman Theatre, "Blind Date" functions as a historical comic drama depicting the events leading to and during the 1985 Geneva Summit between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.
That Swiss summit was the first major meeting of the two nuclear superpowers in nearly a decade and helped lead to a thaw in the Cold War. But at the time, the summit mainly set the stage for a future summit -- not the kind of stuff that normally fuels historic dramas.
Where Martinez finds his story is by showing how the sausage of this summit was made. There were many, many people involved, and Goodman has gone all out to reflect that by casting a huge acting ensemble that fills out designer Ricardo Hernandez's massive multiturntable rotating set.
In "Blind Date," diplomatic details get debated, media optics are scrutinized and counterintelligence spying is conjured up for leverage at key moments. Political pundits will find this cautious diplomacy and backroom bargaining fascinating -- especially if they're watching with steely eyes for any bias in how these former and often lionized leaders are depicted.
Though the newly installed Gorbachev (a fine William Dick) was more of an unknown political wild card, Martinez's focus in "Blind Date" is weighted more toward Reagan (Rob Riley, in a nuanced performance that wisely steers away from easy sketch-show impersonations).
For example, Thomas J. Cox appears as future Reagan biographer Edmund Morris (who would controversially blend fiction with fact in his 1999 book "Dutch"). Morris is among many of the characters who give after-the-fact audience asides to stress how the actor-turned-politician still viewed his job through the prism of show business and Hollywood storytelling.
Though other political summits have inspired major works of art (the 1987 John Adams and Alice Goodman opera "Nixon in China" comes to mind), "Blind Date" can often be dry and understated. Yet director Robert Falls' cinematic production is largely winning due to the ensemble's subtle and enlivening performances of the political personalities.
Perhaps because "Blind Date" has so many men in suits, the colorful scenes involving the powerful political wives truly stand out. As Nancy Reagan, Deanna Dunagan is a startling doppelgänger through her fiercely protective and firm demeanor plus her well-coifed appearance (Amy Clark's spot-on costume designs add immensely to the illusion).
Nancy Reagan famously did not get along with Raisa Gorbachev (Mary Beth Fisher, clearly having a romp with her detailed Russian accent and more smartly humorous role). So the passive-aggressive and exhausting meeting between the two women is one of the comic standouts of "Blind Date."
Aside from the play's funny moments, "Blind Date" gets weighty when stressing how world leaders have the power to shape millions of lives. The play offers glimmers of hope, especially in the noble friendship that develops between U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz (Jim Ortlieb) and Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Eduard Shevardnadze (Steve Pickering). The two statesmen bond over their love of their kids and grandchildren, and "Blind Date" serves as a reminder that future generations should be the focus of all political leaders.
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Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday (also Tuesday, Feb. 13); 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday (no evening shows Feb. 11 and 18); through Feb. 25
Running time: About 2 hours 30 minutes, including intermission
Parking: Area pay garages and limited street parking
Rating: For general audiences