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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 11, 2016

Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

The art of writing may be inherently undramatic, but that doesn't mean it contains no possibility of vitality. One need only look, for example, at the musical 1776 (which was revived at Encores! earlier this year) for proof of how the creation of a document—by politicians, no less!—can be made riveting, rewarding entertainment. As a secondary, and rather more current, example, one may also point to J.T. Rogers's new play Oslo, which just opened at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.

Okay, that's a slight exaggeration. This play, which has been directed by Bartlett Sher, is really about something far more concrete and concretizing: peace in the Middle East by way of the 1993 Oslo Accords. But it's one of the chief contentions of Rogers and his many characters here that words have distinct, inviolable meanings, and that to discount the power they contain could lead to your figurative or literal destruction. So across three acts and three hours of playing time, Rogers, Sher, and a dynamite cast led by Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle draw necessary connections between reality as written and reality as executed in pursuit of a lofty goal—with considerable, if less than total, success.

It's the philosophy of Terje Rød-Larsen (Mays), the director of Norway's Fafo Institute for Applied Social Sciences, that previous attempts to unite the ever-warring Israelis and Palestinians have failed because they're striven for totalism rather than gradualism. So with the help of his wife, Mona (Ehle), who works in the foreign ministry, he arranges a meeting between two officials positioned well below then–Prime Minister of Israel Yitzakh Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) head Yasser Arafat, University of Haifa economics professor Yair Hirschfeld (Daniel Oreskes) and PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi), to get the ball rolling.

We see how those relationships continuously establish new ones further up their respective lines, coming to involve the likes of the flamboyant director-general of the Israeli foreign ministry, Uri Savir (a scorchingly funny Michael Aronov) and the foreign minister himself, Shimon Peres (Oreskes), as well as a hard-line Communist PLO liaison named Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani), until every ceiling of influence is hit. And it seems, not without good reason, that compromises about sticking points such as the legitimacy of Israel and the function of Jerusalem, may just be within reach, where before they were all but unimaginable.

As with his previous LCT play weaving complex current events into a theatrical narrative, Blood and Gifts (an electrifying and hilarious deconstruction of United States–Afghanistan relations in the 1980s and 1990s, produced in 2011), Rogers mines every occurrence, no matter how minor, for new forms of tension and release, while never shying away from the underlying accomplishments. As much attention is given to, say, a barrage of 200 questions intended to hammer out critical disagreements as to the bonding power of waffles with lingonberry preserves or mocking impersonations of ostensibly revered figures (Terje, at Mona's urgent behest, insists on pure business behind closed doors but none at all in the common areas).

Michael Aronov, Jefferson Mays, and Anthony Azizi
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Sher (who also directed Blood and Gifts) has provided a staging that is perhaps drier than ideal, imparting a stiff atmosphere that his design team (Michael Yeargan for sets, Catherine Zuber for costumes, Donald Holder for lights, Peter John Still for sound, and 59 Productions for projections) are not completely able to puncture. But he does always focus you on the matters at hand, and keeps things thoroughly followable and digestible—no small achievement considering 14 performers play 21 characters, with constant, understated shifts in time and location.

Much credit must go to the actors, who robustly occupy the front lines. Mays is a complicated delight, linking the conflicting sides of Terje's personality (starchy academic and international unifying force; natural meddler and background figure) into a single personality more than engaging enough to guide us through the process. As Mona, Ehle beautifully blends a businesslike dreamer's intensity with real-life perspective, and makes the woman a charming but bracing corrective to Terje's barely subdued passions. The fiery Aronov and parched Azizi make their characters both perfectly contrasting sparring partners and more alike than either would be willing to admit. And in the larger of the supporting roles, Oreskes (always darkly driven), (Kashani (particularly explosive), T. Ryder Smith (as a manic, swearing-prone Norwegian minister), and Daniel Jenkins (a pair of milquetoast underlings) make indelible impressions of their own.

Oslo, alas, is ultimately unsatisfying for reasons unrelated to any of this. For his obvious skill at translating geopolitical positioning into compelling stage action, Rogers has not overcome the material's inherent catastrophic problem: The Oslo Accords did not lead to peace between Israel and Palestine, or really anything like it. If this is not surprising to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the headlines, as presented the life-or-death attempts of Terje and his negotiators promise a more tangible, complete outcome than the one this playwright—or the planet Earth—has yet been able to deliver.

That shouldn't be a show-killer in any play where the journey is more important than the destination, but Rogers has simply not moderated expectations and modulated their follow-through to keep pace with the facts that, eventually, become inevitable. You need some solidity, whether in the conclusion or in the lack of one, but the most you get here is a flimsy, tacked-on epilogue that details the various deaths and derailments of the characters, as though any of that is (or has been) the point.

Worse, the melancholy wrapper around it, which tries to explain away the Accords' failure, defuses almost everything that comes before and it's the playwriting equivalent of throwing up one's hands, at the time the audience needs that least. Even if Rogers—and, for that matter, the planet—can't answer one of history's most vexing questions, not providing some return on the audience's investment only compounds the problem by encouraging us to continue to navel-gaze after observing so exhaustively how tiny motions can turn great motors.

Maybe the Accords did crack open the door to an enduring relationship that will mend the ancient wounds in the Middle East, but that's not the story Oslo claims to be telling until it's clear it can tell no other. Terje, and maybe even Rabin and Arafat, had to settle from their positions on the world stage, but that doesn't mean we ought to have to when we're looking down at a playing space of a very different, but potentially as transformative, kind.

Through August 28
Mitzi E. NewhouseTheatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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