New York City Theater
It really shouldn’t work. It’s talky, frustrating, deals with obscure politicians and academics and, not to be ignored, is three hours long (with two intermissions). Yet, J. T. Rogers’ “Oslo” at Lincoln Center is an absorbing, often amusing powerhouse, a play as fascinating and stimulating as “A Walk in the Woods” or “Copenhagen,” which also combined the personal and public.
Like those works, it deals with geopolitics, here the secret talks between Israelis and Palestinians. These are not high-level negotiations – the bigwigs chime in later -- but it does lead to a truce between the two Middle Eastern entities, a sadly unenduring truce.
Rogers’ accomplishment, abetted by Bartlett Sher’s superlative direction, is to humanize not only representatives from both sides but the process itself. Stemming from the concerns of a pair of Norwegian diplomats, the husband-and-wife team of Terje Rød-Larsen and his wife, Mona Juul, “Oslo” compresses actual events into a dramatic structure that transcends time. Layers upon layers are stripped away in amazing detail, proving that ideas can out-run feelings.
The diplomats pin their initial reason for convening the meetings on a confrontation they witnessed in Gaza between two young men, one an Israeli soldier, the other a Palestinian youth. “Two boys facing each other, one in uniform, one in jeans, weapons in hand, hate flowing between them,” says Mona. “But their faces—and we both see this—their faces are exactly the same. . . And there, in that moment, for us, it began.”
How might they bring antagonists to meaningful discussions, without interfering? (“We have what the U.S. can never have: the appearance of neutrality.”) First, of course, the talks must be secret. If highups in Israel or, worse, America, hear abut the negotiations, they’re sure to interfere. When these countries do get wind, they inevitably try to put their own stamp on the proceedings. It’s President Bill Clinton who presides over the historic handshake on the White House lawn between Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin.
The diplomats, constantly being threatened by their bosses to give up their scheme, feel the old hatreds might be at least ameliorated by intertwining the personal and political, feeding the senses with food and drink (preferably Johnny Walker Black), and throwing in several old jokes. For both sides to find a path through the thicket of mistrust, a Declaration of Principles must be agreed upon. “We will never stop,” the negotiators say. “What we must not do is allow the details to obscure the bigger picture.”
If some of this sounds like an illustrated history lesson, think otherwise. The drama, the conflicts are too stark, too engaging, the acting too terrific. Jefferson Mays is a somewhat bumbling Terje, almost sweating with anxiety, making every effort to keep his cool. As his wife, Mona, the wonderful Jennifer Ehle is the pragmatic one, the steady hand, worried but composed, accepting flattery as well as disappointment. As the only woman deeply involved, she quite dominates the men.
The large cast doesn’t have a weak link, with performances so precise we immediately intuit who these people are. Standing out are Dariush Kashani as the ideological, unbending Hassan Asfour, Anthony Azizi as the complicated Ahmed Qurie, Michael Aronov as the wily Israeli Uri Savir and Angela Pierce as Toril Grandal, housekeeper and cook at the estate where much of the action takes place. Her waffles alone save the day: enemies and friends, heroes and villains, can agree on their deliciousness.
Michael Yeargan’s graceful set, Donald Holder’s pinpoint lighting, Catherine Zuber’s delineating costumes, Peter John Still’s penetrating sound and 59 Productions’ telling projections combine to place us squarely in a particular location while also pulling back enough to frame the play as a moment in time.
Both Mays and Ehle are our guides: we’re always aware these politicians are actors on a stage, welcoming us to a world of intrigue, suspicion and hope. Although “Oslo” takes place in 1992 and 1993, it remains very much for and about today’s search for respectful diplomacy, not fearful war.
“If we have come this far,” says Terje, “through blood, through fear—hatred—how much further can we yet go? There! On the horizon. The Possibility.”
--David A. Rosenberg
August 4, 2016