From New York: A review of OSLO

by Lynn on August 28, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center Theater, New York City.

Written by J. T. Rogers
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Sets by Michael Yeargan
Costumes by Catherine Zuber
Lighting by Donald Holder
Sound by Peter John Still
Projections by 59 Productions
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

NOTE: The whole run for Oslo at the Mitzi E. Newhouse theatre was sold out. And while I saw this in July and it closes today—Aug. 28, I’m still writing about it, albeit late, because it’s important and will be returning to Lincoln Center Theater, this April, this time at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.

A stunning, gut wrenching play about the high stakes at work in the secret negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians when they met in Oslo to talk about peace.

The Story. The unimaginable happened in the White House Rose Garden on September 13, 1993. President Bill Clinton presided over the signing of the first-ever peace agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and brought Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister of Israel and Yasir Arafat, the Chairman of the PLO together to shake hands on the deal. Astonishing.

The back story of how this came to be is the stuff of drama.

We are in Oslo Norway and other locations around the world. The story takes place between April 1992 and September 1993.

Terje Rød-Larsen and his wife Mona Juul were Norwegian diplomats in Oslo at the time. Rød-Larsen had a theory about negotiations and how to bring even the most combative of opponents together to agree on a solution to a problem. His theory was to make the negotiations personal; to solve one problem at a time and then move to the next. His idea was to bring the Israelis and the Palestinians together in Oslo, to talk about peace. In this case the Palestinians meant the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The talks would be secret. Indeed it was illegal for an Israeli to deal directly with the PLO. Both Rød-Larsen and his wife had various diplomatic contacts who could make this meeting happen. There were several meetings in fact and they are now known as the Oslo Accords. Rabin and Arafat were not directly involved in those meetings, although they were in constant contact with their various representatives who were.

At first the representatives from Israel seemed perhaps low-level but still committed and eager to work this out. When negotiations got further ahead more senior representatives took over. The main negotiators were Uri Savir (Michael Aronov) for the Israelis and Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi) for the Palestinians. They arrived with their ‘baggage’ and their attitudes. Ahmed Qurie from the Palestinian side rails at Uri Savir from the Israelis side about what they have done to his people, killing children and innocent citizens, and Savir comes back with his list of horrors regarding the Palestinians’ side

There were snags along the way. Negotiations stalled. Rød-Larsen kept his cool and worked feverishly to get things on track. Mona Juul did too. And when all was said and done there was that astonishing handshake in the Rose Garden of the White House. We all know the story doesn’t end there.

The Production. Bartlett Sher directs this with a sure, delicate hand. Whether he’s directing straight plays: (Blood and Gifts; Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Golden Boy, Awake and Sing!) or musicals: (South Pacific, The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof, The Light in the Piazza, The Bridges of Madison County just for starters, or the opera Two Boys) he puts his stamp on each and more often than not the result is definitive. His standard is the one you judge all other productions.

There is such delicacy in his directorial touch even when the conversation is heated. You think each side might come to blows, but they hold back. (When Ahmed Qurie and Uri Savir railed at each other regarding their atrocities, it made me limp in my seat. “It’s hopeless” I thought. But both sides were there because they wanted to get past the ‘hopelessness’ and move forward.)

The body language becomes personal as the negotiations go on and each side sees that the other wants the same thing, but also to be true to their convictions on what they must gain. . So when characters are leaving the scene, a character from the Israeli side might put a delicate hand on the back of a Palestinian character, in friendship. It’s that subtlety that has one looking and wondering: how do you decide how close a character passes another if they are on different sides; as they get to know each other, the body language becomes collegial rather than wary. That’s the doing of Bartlett Sher (“Sher brilliance?”). He just makes us look harder and consider with more attention.

With Oslo everything about it is exquisite. Michael Yeargan has created a spare, beautiful set. There is a gleaming table of rich wood and two chairs suggesting the elegant surroundings. A door is upstage, behind which the negotiations take place. We never see them. What we see is the give and take, the banter, the effort to know the other side when the two sides are not behind closed doors.

Rød-Larsen suggested that there be ‘down time’ in which the two sides would take a break and enjoy a drink or a nosh. Both sides unanimously agree that the food provided is delicious and each wants to take the woman who cooked it back home with them. Rød-Larsen I believe suggests that both sides tell a joke. That breaks the ice.

Jefferson Mays plays Terje Rød-Larsen as a fastidious, courtly, gracious man. If you look up ‘fastidious’ in the dictionary I’m sure you’ll find a picture of Jefferson Mays next to the definition. Much has been written about his sartorial splendour off stage. On stage clothes look perfect on him. He assumes a sphinx-like smile, pleasant, inviting, but hiding a mind that is always thinking. You can see the character thinking by watching Jefferson Mays’ eyes. I have to say that Mays does not look like a real person—he’s too perfect. The face beams. His cheeks glow. His eyes glisten. He looks more beautiful than handsome. Commenting on a person’s looks really is not kosher but with this guy, you (I?) can’t help it. And he’s a wonderful actor as was scene when he played eight different characters in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and earlier in I Am My Own Wife he played a peasant woman. In Blood and Gifts he was again fastidious and always compelling.

At one point Terje Rød-Larsen has to lie to his wife Mona Juul because the negotiations are at a critical point and he is determined that nothing will get in the way. Mays hesitates just a touch, we hold our breaths, and he tells the lie. Does Mona Juul believe it? As played by Jennifer Ehle, who also has a sphinx-like smile and easy grace, you do believe she believes it. Or she just might be hiding any doubt. I can believe that Ehle is that smart, diplomatic, compassionate kind of person who gets things done in the most graceful way. She is a perfect match for Mays.

As Ahmed Qurie (on the Palestinian side), Anthony Azizi is tempered for the most part, watchful, and wary. He is a perfect match for Michael Aronov (on the Israeli side) who plays Uri Savir. Aronov is brash, swaggers, hands on hips, trying to take control. It’s easy to see how he can rub people the wrong way, but he is also hugely compelling. Both men soften when they realize their daughters share the same name.

I haven’t heard a silence in a theatre for such a challenging play in a long time, but my audience of mainly seniors and me and Arlene and Alan Alda over there, sat, holding our breaths in total silence, gripped by this brilliant play and equally brilliant production.

Comment. When Bartlett Sher was directing J.T. Rogers previous play, Blood and Gifts, about America’s involvement in Afghanistan, Sher invited Rød-Larsen to see it. Sher knew Rød-Larsen and his wife, Mona Juul because their daughters went to the same school. Sher introduced J.T. Rogers to Terje Rød-Larsen. Rød-Larsen talked of his and his wife’s involvement in the Oslo Accords. This got Mr. Rogers interested in the subject. Research followed. Oslo is the result.

J.T. Rogers’ play is astonishing in that it shows both sides of this age old hatred. He has shown the minutiae of what goes into delicate negotiations—something like untangling a spider web. While Rogers says that the details of the Oslo Accords is documented he is clear to say in his program note that this is his version of things. And while we know what happened from what we have read in the papers and what happened after that handshake, Rogers has written a gripping play that twists our guts and emotions and presents it as a political thriller. Will the two sides come back to the table after negotiations break down? Will anger prevail over good will or vice versa? He writes the language of diplomacy as clearly and compellingly as he writes the language of anger and hurt and distrust. He takes you so deeply inside the story you almost forget how it turns out and you are gripped every step of the way.

As always happens to me when I see theatre that has touched me deeply and shaken me and my assumptions, I got weepy. I cried all the way to the subway. That happens a lot after seeing such stunning theatre, and it’s usually at Lincoln Center Theater. I’m going to ask them to supply me with Kleenex the next time.

Produced by Lincoln Center Theater.

Opened: July 11, 2016.
Saw it: July 27, 2016.
Closes: Aug. 28, 2016.
Cast: 14; 11 men, 3 women.
Running Time: Almost 3 hours, approx.

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