Everything about Oslo is improbable — not least, the notion of an entertaining tale of Mideast peace negotiations.
Oslo’s genesis is as remarkable as its content. After a 2011 performance of their Blood and Gifts, director Bartlett Sher and playwright J.T. Rogers headed for the lobby of the Mitzi Newhouse, where they ran into a Norwegian couple of Sher’s acquaintance, a couple who were the unlikely engineers of the turbulent back-channel negotiations that led to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, between Israel and the PLO. Rogers became so intrigued with their story, he spent the next several years writing the dense and compelling Oslo now on at the Vivian Beaumont. Sher directs.
The couple in question, Mona Juul, (Jennifer Ehle) an official in the ministry, and Terje Rod-Larson, (Jefferson Mays) the director of an academic institute, are entertaining colleagues in the opening scene. The point of the story is among the opening lines. Terje tells the party about meeting Yitzhak Rabin and having found him a boor. “Six months later, Rabin is prime minister, and I am a fool,” says Terje. “Why? Because I saw one side of this man and assumed this meant I knew all of him.”
This realization leads to his thesis of Gradualism — a new way to approach negotiations — a thesis he is hungry to test on the Mideast problem. Terje’s model “…is rooted not in the organizational but the personal.” He tells us: “It is only through the sharing of the personal that we can see each other for who we truly are.”
So Rogers gives us a frame for the play: can gradualism succeed where traditional negotiations have demonstrably failed. As in Frayn’s Copenhagen, the pursuit of the big idea, however worthy, can get tiresome, if not relieved by credible characters, witty exchanges, deft direction, and fine performances. Oslo offers all of that.
Mona is the brains of the operation. She manages the men, who are inclined to grandiosity and bombast. Closer to home, she manages us, the audience, as she steps to the lip of the stage on occasion to “catch us up” with needed exposition. The remarkably winning Jennifer Ehle makes us her confidants.
There is a touching innocence of first encounters, as men who have hated and fought each other, meet for the first time. “You are my first Jew!” leads to a disarming retort.
There is schtick and joke telling, and comic impersonation. Even a toast to Kissinger’s ass.
There are wickedly funny moments as when the Israeli firebrand, focuses on Mona’s hips, verbally cuckholding her ambitious husband. All in good fun, I guess.
Cuckhold or not, Mays manages to give Terje a credible enthusiasm for the task at hand as well as a humanizing vulnerability. He is Everyman, not Superman.
The protagonists quite literally push the negotiating tables into place much as they push the process. Good idea (the furniture moving) but it gets old fast. Michael Yeargan’s stark set, elegant but stark, uses video running on the back wall of the Beaumont stage to add color, and to pace the action in the outside world. At the same time it reinforces the cocooned setting of these intense negotiations.
Oslo, was produced in a smaller frame last year at the Newhouse. It is now enjoying a limited run at the more capacious Beaumont before heading to London’s National Theatre.
"Though it is sparing in its use of scenery or anything approaching spectacle, J. T. Rogers’s 'Oslo,' an against-the-odds story of international peacemaking, is undeniably a big play, as expansive and ambitious as any in recent Broadway history. So it is particularly gratifying to announce that it has been allowed to stretch to its full height in the thrilling production that opened on Thursday night, directed with a master’s hand by Bartlett Sher."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Like Sher’s stagings of 'The King and I' and 'Joe’s Turner’s Come and Gone,' this show flows in near-cinematic fashion and pulls you in so tight that time recedes. That’s no small feat, since the play runs nearly three hours. It’s time well-spent."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Nearly three hours long, the play demands attentiveness and works hard to achieve it. (The actors, at times, deliver their lines at alarm-clock volume.) In its bittersweet final swell of hopefulness and humanity, it rewards one of our most endangered virtues, in theater as well as in politics: patience."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"Besides turning an historic event into high-brow entertainment, 'Oslo' is impressively even-handed. Both sides emerge proudly arrogant, yet desperate for peace. And while that peace didn't last, this excellent play offers hope that history can once again repeat itself."
Roma Torre for NY1
"What would it take to get you to Lincoln Center Theater to see a three-hour political drama about the 1993 peace treaty between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization known as the Oslo Accords? I doubt this review is going to do it, which is really a shame, because 'Oslo,' a new drama by J.T. Rogers, is unequivocally fascinating... LCT subscribers should know how lucky they are, having the opportunity to see director Bartlett Sher’s striking production of this compelling drama."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
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