'Oslo': Theater Review
Tony winners Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays lead the ensemble of J.T. Rogers' new play about the secret talks that yielded the historic 1993 White House handshake between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
The terrific new political thriller Oslo begins with actors scurrying about the stage positioning props and furniture, as one key figure played by Jefferson Mays arranges people within the space while another, portrayed by Jennifer Ehle, breaks the fourth wall early on to elucidate character and background information. One remarkable aspect of this very fine production, directed with unerringly precise attention to detail by Bartlett Sher, is that while its mechanics as a theatrical presentation are emphasized from the start, they enhance rather than impede our involvement in a fascinating true story. This is a play alive with tension, intrigue, humor, bristling intelligence and emotional peaks that are subdued yet intensely moving, which concludes unexpectedly on a poignant note of hope.
None of that should be surprising given that the playwright is J.T. Rogers, who has made a specialty out of distilling politically fraught global conflict situations into briskly compelling, lucid stage narratives. In his 2006 drama, The Overwhelming, he looked at Americans in Rwanda, as the African nation was on the brink of a genocidal civil war; and in 2011, in this same Lincoln Center Theater venue with the same director, he undertook a probing examination of American involvement in Afghanistan in Blood and Gifts.
One character in Oslo observes that, "Americans cannot stand it when others take the lead," while earlier on another notes that the U.S. government is especially proprietary about its relationship with the Middle East. That makes American foreign policy a wryly marginalized factor in this drama, right up to the climactic moment in 1993 when President Bill Clinton looked on as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat came together in the White House Rose Garden in a landmark accord in which the two opposing sides recognized one another's legitimacy for the first time.
Of course, the continuing violence that followed, including Rabin's assassination by an Israeli extremist, demonstrated the limits of the agreement. But the play nonetheless provides an emotionally charged account of the event as a giant step that had been inconceivable during the 45 years of bitter conflict that preceded it.
I confess I was groaning at the prospect of a three-hour drama about the Oslo Accords, as the nine months of secret back-channel talks in Norway that led to the 1993 agreement are known. But in much the same way that Terje Rod-Larsen (Mays), the director of an applied social sciences institute, and his wife, the Norwegian Foreign Ministry official Mona Juul (Ehle), saw a way to facilitate productive discussions by introducing the personal into a decades-long standoff between two implacable adversaries, Rogers' drama artfully locates the human story in a delicate account of political diplomacy. This is a richly insightful play about culturally diverse people — Norwegians, Israelis, Palestinians — discovering deep-rooted shared desires and personal affinities.
The sheer volume of them — there are at least 15 substantial characters representing the three nationalities and several more minor figures — at first seems dizzying. But without dumbing anything down, Rogers, Sher and their faultless cast deliver maximum clarity as well as urgency, drawing out the distinct personalities with great nuance and a considerable amount of wit. In many ways, Oslo recalls another complex drama that takes its title from a Scandinavian city where momentous talks took place, Michael Frayn's Copenhagen.
Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays
Given the illegality at the time of Israeli and Palestinian leaders sitting down at the same table, the subterfuge required to pull off any kind of meeting is mind-blowing, even in remote Oslo. The key to international conflict negotiation, Terje notes, is to think not in terms of Totalism but of Gradualism. Just getting the go-ahead to begin the process requires some crafty maneuvering from Terje and Mona with her prickly boss at the Foreign Ministry, Johan Jorgen Holst (T. Ryder Smith), whose acerbic wife Marianne (Henny Russell) works for Terje.
But if the Norwegians are tricky, navigating the concerns of the Israelis is even more difficult. Yossi Beilin (Adam Dannheisser), a rising star of the Israeli Labor Party, orchestrates his country's participation, sending two rumpled economics professors from Haifa, Yair Hirschfeld (Daniel Oreskes) and Ron Pundak (Daniel Jenkins), as his representatives. Over Johnnie Walker and Jewish jokes, they help smooth the way to a civil rapport with Palestinian Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi), a proud, indignant man known to his friends as Abu Ala; and PLO liaison Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani), a hard-line, Moscow-style Marxist given to fiery tirades and dour maxims.
Some of the most captivating scenes involve the two sides' interactions with Toril Grandal (the invaluable Russell again), the housekeeper and cook at Borregaard Castle, where the talks take place. (Smith plays her groundsman husband in another example of the production's slyly amusing double-casting.) The rapture that spreads among the guests while savoring Toril's family waffle recipe is the kind of enchantment that obscures age-old frictions.
When the Palestinians demand that the Israelis upgrade to representatives with actual political clout, the drama's most dynamic character enters: Director General of the Foreign Ministry Uri Savir, played with take-charge swagger and sexual magnetism to spare by the hilarious Michael Aronov (FX's The Americans). Savir and Qurie prove to be opposite sides of the same coin, and a quiet walk they take together in the snow on the Borregaard estate following an outburst is among the play's most affecting interludes. With Foreign Minister Shimon Peres (Oreskes again) pulling strings from back home, the Israelis then call in Washington, D.C.-based lawyer Joel Singer (Joseph Siravo), a gruff bulldog who had written the military rules of engagement used by the Zionist army to crush the Palestinians.
While Aronov is a kick, it's virtually impossible to single out any one performance, since the ensemble works with an uncanny combination of cohesion, sensitivity and efficiency. It helps that Rogers has spread around the choicest dialogue, giving every major character his or her fair share. There are moments of anxiety when both the Israelis and Palestinians appear to question Terje's motives, but that suspicion is quickly defused with teasing laughter, even if the suggestion remains in Mays' grandiloquent turn that a hunger for personal glory played some part in his urge to make a difference. The wonderful Ehle, on the other hand, is the very essence of diplomatic purpose and poise; her dismissal of her guests' attempts at flattery and flirtation is priceless.
Over the play's three acts, the stakes are continually heightened, with Mona interjecting quick accounts of external world events impacting the talks, which Sher expertly illustrates using sharp video elements. The sense of time passing, and moods darkening and lifting, is also conveyed in Donald Holder's exquisite lighting, which continually transforms a spare, gray-walled set by Michael Yeargan containing just a few pieces of tasteful antique furnishings — all burnished wood and plush upholstery. Perhaps the key visual element is a door.
In the opening scene, Terje asks why Norway, a country that maintains good diplomatic relations with both sides, shouldn't attempt to make peace in the Middle East. Marianne replies, "Because it's the Middle East, Terje. They don't do peace." Rogers acknowledges throughout that this view is shared by most of the world, including by the two sides weary of killing one another's children. Nonetheless, in the beautiful monologue from Terje that closes this contemplative, admirably even-handed play, he invites us to consider not the ongoing impasse of blood and fear and hatred, but the expansive sense of possibility that the Oslo Accords represent. The simple final image of gentle light flooding through a half-open doorway speaks stirring volumes.
Venue: Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, New York
Cast: Michael Aronov, Anthony Azizi, Adam Dannheisser, Jennifer Ehle, Daniel Jenkins, Dariush Kashani, Jeb Kreager, Jefferson Mays, Christopher McHale, Daniel Oreskes, Angela Pierce, Henny Russell, Joseph Siravo, T. Ryder Smith
Director: Bartlett Sher
Playwright: J.T. Rogers
Set designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designer: Peter John Still
Projection designer: 59 Projections
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater