Leaving Lincoln Center on a beautiful spring Sunday afternoon after a performance of “Oslo,” I was surprisingly engulfed by an uneasy disquiet. My reaction, I should hasten to make clear, is not one that will likely be shared by many who go to see Bartlett Sher’s crystalline production of a fine new American play by J.T. Rogers — though I expect other minds will be similarly concentrated by the issues the play raises. Is the fault in myself, I mused, or in the stars? (Here I decidedly am not referring to the ones on the stage but rather those through which fifty-nine U.S. missiles cruised toward a single target in Syria last week.)
First, though, to the many aspects of the production that require commendation — the probing of history, dense ideas, elevated discourse, crackerjack ensemble acting, staging acutely devised to amplify content and exemplary, even revelatory, design.
“Oslo” explores a chapter in the search for resolution to the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict — the under the radar brinksmanship that led to the 1996 Oslo Accords. A Norwegian professional diplomat Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle), and a sociologist Terje Rød-Larsen (Jefferson Mays) — based on a real-life married couple — combine their expertise to attempt to broker a back-channel détente between two factions who had never met face to face (or as the significance of which later becomes clear, handshake to handshake). Together, the would-be peacemakers collude, with and without the cooperation of their superiors, to create a safe and secret space where negotiations might occur. The action of the play takes place over nine months, and it is no small accomplishment that we do not lose our way in the Rubik’s Cube of the many encounters.
Our guide on the journey is the distaff side of the diplomatic coupling, Mona, who neatly fulfills two dramatic functions — she anchors the audience as a succinct explainer-in-chief and is the lodestar for a crew of testosterone-laden politicos. As the real life Mona helpfully comments in the Lincoln Center Review, “In the art of diplomacy you have to play a role, and your own feelings aren’t so important because you’re so focused on making others comfortable so they can do the right thing. You put yourself on hold a little.” Generations of mediating women across the globe understand this.
Giving this kind of character dimension is a challenging assignment for Ehle because we do not actually see very much of what Mona contributes to earn the veneration not only of her husband but also of the chief Palestinian negotiator who holds her in almost filial regard. Moments of contrasting action include her steely prod to a security officer (“You’ve got a gun, don’t you?”) and her comical quick thinking when hapless interlopers intrude on top secret proceedings. Eventually though, we come to view Mona as the lynchpin — part inscrutable Madonna, part omniscient puppeteer. She is appropriately the most adroit practitioner of “soft power” as the art of diplomatic persuasion is often described.
Tellingly, Mona is the only character that seems to fully grasp that the potential for disaster is at least in equal proportion to the possibility of a positive outcome. She also possesses the insight and objectivity to question the measure and validity of the success ultimately achieved. Ehle is equipped to shine in dramas of intellectual and emotional ambiguity. Her Mona remains mysterious and yet she shares her interior conflict — never making the process look easy. We are always aware that a price is being paid. Her sensuality, while not something she exploits, nevertheless affects all the men who orbit as moons to her sun. The rules of every game are in Mona’s expert hands, yet she is preoccupied with integrity: “We must not lie to them!”
Truth, and strict adherence to it (or not), is a core theme in “Oslo,” and a construct Mays’ Terje is more willing to view as pliable. Whilst his wife Mona is posted on assignment, the vacationing academic and aspiring political operative Terje decides to advance an outlier approach to counter the diplomatic stalemate at the official peace talks.
While Terje’s need for approval and inclination to grandiosity is stronger than Mona’s, he is also an altruistic innovator eager to demonstrate the real life efficacy of his research. The scenes wherein Terje realizes he must reconcile himself to his bystander role, whether called out as a “watcher who is not in it” or when he absorbs the sting of being left out of the most important seating plan of his career, Mays’ art is such that while we watch his character’s struggle, we also rejoice in his humanity and believe his pledge to serve a greater good is genuine.
Mona and Terje are torn between the necessities and limitations of conventional diplomacy (where masks must be worn and faces maintained) and their renegade impulses to enable authentic human connection. As facilitators, their insistence upon a demarcation between “work” and “social” space, along with enforcing pledges of friendship in the face of raging differences, are tactics that now seem more than faintly quaint. Nevertheless, seeing bonds form among the participants makes for fascinating watching in what might otherwise be dry territory.
The long-exiled key negotiator for Palestine, Ahmed Qurie, compellingly embodied by Anthony Azizi, is almost wholly sympathetic. In his statesmanship, he is able to take the long view and is patient in the face of provocation, unlike his hair-trigger sidekick Hassan (Dariush Kashani). The pathos Azizi evokes in Ahmed’s description of his personal vision of “home” and the circumstances required for reunion with his father are among the many genuinely moving moments of the play.
The first member of the Israeli team with whom Ahmed tussles is the economics professor Yair Hirschfeld (Daniel Oreskes), played so quintessentially Jewish as to be almost Borscht Belt, but we welcome his warm humor that leavens the onstage tension. When Yair extends his hand for the first moment of physical contact with Ahmed, we allow ourselves to hope a little. (The simple act of shaking hands is an expertly deployed gesture that crescendos to a climax at the end of the play.) Later the same actor, now portraying Shimon Peres with uncanny veracity, manifests the future Nobel winner’s greatness when he regards his responsibility to future generations as ineluctable. Would there were more leaders of such disposition still at work in the world!
When a seasoned political operative is appointed to the Israeli contingent, Uri Savir (Michael Aronov) joins the fray as a potentially destabilizing force, judging from his electrifying and kinetic stage presence. It is soon suggested, however, that Uri might merely be nervous. This indeed touchingly proves to be the case — one of a series of curveballs that makes the action refreshingly unpredictable.
Actualizing the rest of the wide-ranging characters requires the playing of multiple roles by most of the cast who are uniformly excellent. They run the occasional risk of shouting not only their ideology but also their lines, but fortunately this does not happen often. Special mention must also be made of Adam Dannheisser as Yossi, the credible early believer on the Israeli side. The enthusiastically consumed cuisine prepared by the in-house cook (Henny Russell, in only one of three gem-like roles) creates room for a charmingly recited recipe for, of all things, waffles! It seems much soothing of the savage breast can be accomplished by the sharing of a Swedish griddlecake.
Director Bartlett Sher is due more than conventional kudos for “Oslo” as he also commissioned the play and introduced the playwright to its real-life subjects. The production’s move upstairs from the Newhouse to the Beaumont, which one might worry would dwarf the play, instead gives the size and scope of the concepts ample room to manifest. In such a place, we accept we are dealing with momentous matters. Rogers’ smart, pithy writing makes both people and politics consistently relatable, often with winning jocularity. With the expert backing of his frequent collaborators, Sher has placed the action, nominally set in a Swedish country manor house, on an Elizabethan thrust. True to that convention, only the most essential furniture and props are carried on and off. The minimalistic elegance of the scenic design by Michael Yeargan allows us to focus on the ideas abounding, just as the gray costume palette by Catherine Zuber allows the actors’ faces to reveal all they wish to share with us. Fortunately, the superb and ingenious lighting design by Donald Holder makes those faces seem almost lit from within. Projections take us pungently and poignantly to the Middle East, and sound effects by Peter John Still and Marc Salzberg make the stakes alarming present.
Sher also subtly blurs the lines between audience and actors. The groundlings in the Tudor theater were implicated in ways plush-seated Lincoln Center audiences often are not. By having the house lights not quite bleed away as the play begins and by seating the characters immediately in front of the audience, we are subconsciously asked to consider whether we are also called upon to be actors in the history of our time. Sher, as we know from his many other successes on the Beaumont stage, is completely in command of the space. The symmetry and resonance of the staging of “Oslo” is a tribute to his considerable skill as a mature artist.
The audience at the performance I attended greeted the skewering of less-than-successful interventionist U.S. policy and the spectacle of American leadership upstaged by small neutral Norway with conspicuous enjoyment. But the Americans turn out not to be altogether cartoonish when “cut the crap” U.S. muscle forces the signing of the Accords in the face of last-minute Palestinian misgivings. After all, a photo-op with President Clinton is at stake.
At times throughout the play, Mona and Terje are asked about their motives for initiating the talks that led to the Accords. No one answer is given. The play asks us instead to believe in the possibility of continued betterment. (“Mistakes and foolish choices — of course. Of course. But. We. Began.”)
Because of its sold-out run last season, the move to Broadway and a recently announced Royal National Theatre and subsequent West End mounting in London, “Oslo” is poised to reverse the trend of trenchant political plays such as “Stuff Happens,” “Drunk Enough To Say I Love You” and “Frost/Nixon” among others, all emanating from Britain. Soon, audiences willing to engage with its almost three-hour running time will be rewarded for the foreseeable future on both sides of the Atlantic.
So, now back to the disquiet with which this review began.
It is hard not to reflect that the consuming, almost obsessive, secrecy required to create the incubating conditions for the Oslo Accords could never be replicated in the internet age of zero privacy and WikiLeaks vigilantism. What is truth and when, if ever, should it be manipulated?
An equally pressing question is whether political moderates, open to negotiated compromise that requires some sacrifice of selfish interests, will ever again prevail? The notion that rational, informed people, bolstered by empathy, can overcome tribal extremism seems like a fairy tale — or at the very least a nostalgic valentine.
At my core, I feel unsettled about a certain skilled sentimental myth-making lurking in “Oslo.” The creation of these myths is a strength of American storytellers across mediums. The play seems intended to be valedictory and oracular, and without question, a message of hope in the quagmire should not be diminished. Nor should the theater hesitate to tackle complexity, especially where politics are concerned.
But as Edward O. Wilson wryly noted, “Every culture that ever flourished and faded did so with nuance.” Perhaps it is simply enough to celebrate the instigation of a civil discourse rather than to reckon with its effects. Is a Hallmark-infused message of hope, even in intellectual wrapping, actually expansive, or ultimately reductive — no matter how much we enjoy opening the gift of a splendid outing to the theater?
Then again, what choice do we have? If we are not, as the play references, to drive everyone different from us into the sea but must continue to strive to find a way to share the world, then “Oslo” asks us to believe that might just still be possible.
“Oslo” opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre on Thursday, April 13, 2017.
Creative: Written by J. T. Rogers; Directed by Bartlett Sher; Scenic Design by Michael Yeargan; Costume Design by Catherine Zuber; Lighting Design by Donald Holder; Sound Design by Peter John Still and Marc Salzberg; Projections: 59 Productions; Hair and Wig Design by Tom Watson; Projections Designer: Benjamin Pearcy.
Producer: Lincoln Center Theater.
Cast: Michael Aronov, Anthony Azizi, Adam Dannheisser, Jennifer Ehle, Daniel Jenkins, Dariush Kashani, Jeb Kreager, Jefferson Mays, Christopher McHale, Daniel Oreskes, Angela Pierce, Henry Russell, Joseph Siravo, T. Ryder Smith, Jeff Still.