Rob Riley (Ronald Reagan) and William Dick (Mikhail Gorbachev) Credit: Liz Lauren

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