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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 13, 2017

Oslo 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 and Marc Salzberg. Projections by 59 Productions. Cast: Michael Aronov, Anthony Azizi, Adam Dannheiser, Jennifer Ehle, Daniel Jenkins, Dariush Kashani, Jeb Kreager, Jefferson Mays, Christopher McHale, Daniel Oreskes, Angela Pierce, Henny Russell, Joseph Siravo, T. Ryder Smith.
Theatre: Lincoln Center Theater-Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets: Telecharge

Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

It's a sad fact of the even sadder world we live in that J.T. Rogers's play Oslo, which just opened at the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center following a run downstairs at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater last summer, will never be finished. Its specific subject, the 1993 Oslo Accords that led to a famous Rose Garden handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), would seem to have a definitive (if not always satisfying) beginning, middle, and end. But anyone who pays attention knows that the concept of peace in the Middle East is equal part dream and nightmare, and usually dissolves as quickly as it appears, in light that can be far less bright than that of the morning sun. So where is there for such a play to go?

The answer—nowhere, really—is both the driving and the stopping force of Rogers's play, which has been directed by Bartlett Sher. The back-channel accords are begun by Terje Rød-Larsen (Jefferson Mays), the director of Norway's Fafo Institute for Applied Social Sciences, with the aid of his wife Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle), an official in the country's foreign ministry. At first, the encounters they arrange involve low-level functionaries on the periphery of power structures, and ultimately escalate to the uppermost echelon after months of work and contention. That history is better made in the pauses between conversations of real people rather than in the screaming of sweeping agendas is the argument; that it's slow and inefficient getting there is the proof of its efficacy. The longer nothing happens, the more something has a chance of happening.

Terje explains it as the theory of gradualism as opposed to totalism, and there's some validity to his approach on the stage of world affairs, where bigger names regularly lead to bigger demands and thus bigger headaches. On the theatrical stage, though, you are asked to accept that the journey is the whole reward, not merely part of it—the destination is still not somewhere anyone can reach, assuming it exists at all. Rogers insists you care so much about the process, which at best leads to a framework on which future peace could theoretically be constructed, that you ignore (except for a brief "and then this happened" epilogue) everything it didn't, and in fact couldn't, accomplish.

That's asking a lot—too much really, for a piece so insistent on trading on its "you are there" bona fides. (Rogers took a few liberties with the ordering of events and character details, but generally stays true to the outline described to him by the real Terje and Mona, whom he met at Sher's behest.) Performing the calculations, adding up to nothing, and calling it good is a risky theatrical gamble that requires guts and risk-taking that don't naturally fit with a story this Important (with a capital I). As a result, it's less dramatically sharp and emotionally engaging than Rogers's earlier geopolitical works, The Overwhelming (about the Rwandan genocide) and Blood and Gifts (about Afghanistan).

Daniel Oreskes, Michael Aronov, and Anthony Azizi
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

But if it's not easy to fall for Oslo wholeheartedly, and if it won't change your life or perspective on pretty much anything (spoiler: both sides want the strife to end), Rogers is skillful enough to ensure that you have plenty to enjoy along the way. Mays and Ehle give bold, funny performances that both embrace and eradicate the bureaucratic stereotypes at the heart of their roles. Mays's Terje is a needling, scrunched-up nobody who blossoms and strengthens as his impact becomes more and more felt, and radiates an infectious confidence at evening's end. Darker and more muted at least at first, Mona undergoes a similar transformation that Ehle outlines with harsh but warm precision: the realist who learns how to dream, rather than Terje's dreamer who learns how to be real.

Joining the two are a broad group of exacting ensemble actors who provide distinct, transparent personalities to the many other figures who factor into the saga. Foremost among these are a jolting Michael Aronov as a flamboyant Israeli negotiator; Anthony Azizi, wonderfully intense as the finance minister who represents the PLO throughout; and Daniel Oreskes, in top form as both a University of Haifa professor at the start and Shimon Peres at the end. But the likes of Daniel Jenkins (as a Norwegian deputy foreign minister and an Israeli economics professor), Dariush Kashani (rippingly funny as a Communist PLO liaison), Henny Russell (as Terje's maid, whose waffles can stop any bickering), and Jeff Still (subbing at the performance I attended for Joseph Siravo as a no-nonsense Jewish lawyer), and the rest of the cast round out a choice company that relates Rogers's many larger-than-life scenes in more digestible human terms.

Sher, however, has more trouble. His staging was chilly before, but he hasn't made enough allowances, or sufficiently adjusted it, to account for the much-larger Beaumont, which makes the action more arid and remote than it used to be. Michael Yeargan's spare institutionally elegant set has become bigger and emptier, too (though Catherine Zuber's crisp costumes, Donald Holder's cool but effective lights, Peter John Still and Marc Salzberg's sound, and 59 Productions's projections do land), but it needn't feel that way; the cast is big enough to fill it. But Sher's spins on the many scenes set around couches and tables both cramp and hollow out the show in a way that wasn't the case at the more intimate Newhouse, and his few forays into the audience are now more irredeemably gimmicky. That the script has also been awkwardly compressed from three acts to two, disrupting the pacing when it needs to be most measured, suggests a greater issue with utilizing available resources.

That the play still works for what it is should be considered a testament to Rogers's thoughtfulness, as well as the inherent juiciness of his plot. Too bad Rogers hasn't solved the problem of, well, not solving the problem; a work that thinks as big as this one does and exhibits so much ambition needs to more emphatically own what it can do and what it can't. If (as appears to be the case) we can't rely on Earth's most influential leaders to solve the all-but-endless Israel-Palestine conflict, we can't expect a playwright to. Besides, that's not his job. His job is to articulate, elucidate, and distill, to help us understand on a level deeper than facts that which cannot be understood. For all Rogers has done in dusting off diplomacy, and explicating this crucial morsel of modern history, he hasn't managed that.


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