The sages remind us often of George Santayana’s wisdom when he wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Often the word ‘past’ is replaced with ‘history,’ reminding us that knowing and studying the past is a mighty tool.
It seems we are roiling right now in an era where history, the rule of law, and compromise are tossed and trashed. So it is comforting, to some small degree, that through J.T. Rogers’ excellent play “Oslo” we witness, in vibrant detail, the midwifery and birth of the unlikely 1993 Oslo Peace Accords between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
The playwright informs us in a note, that the play’s genesis came from drinks after a viewing of his play “Blood and Gifts.” Rogers sat down with a Norwegian diplomat, whose tongue I imagine was loosened by many rounds of drinks. Here at a local bar, light was shed on an unusual diplomatic saga, one that culminated in the famous photograph of Prime Minister Rabin and Chairman Arafat shaking hands with Bill Clinton beaming in between them in the rose garden. Playwright Rogers took this information and ran with it.
“Oslo” lays bare in exquisite detail and often unexpected humor, the gut-wrenching details of the endless negotiating, dining, copious drinking, and eventual camaraderie that predated and thus created the historic signing.
“Oslo” was wisely moved upstairs to the capacious Vivian Beaumont Theater with its thrust-stage jutting into the house and seats that provide a bird’s eye view for every ticket holder, albeit ones a bit tight on space.
For this production, the open set with an upstage scrim used ingeniously to project images from the brutal Arab/Isreali conflict, all add to the understanding of the times. The set design is by the very talented Michael Yeargan. It utilizes traps that open and shut, whisking furniture out of site to provide scene changes. And although there is very little décor, every piece is precise and contributes to the sense of a Norwegian diplomat’s home, or a dark forest, or a negotiating space.
It is upon is a mutable canvas that the story unfolds. Bartlett Sher’s most deft direction takes what could be a confusing morass of facts, figures, and characters and lays them bare at our feet where they entertain and enlighten.
The key to this is the extraordinary undertaking is the ineffable Jennifer Ehle, who plays Mona Juul, an official in the Norwegian foreign ministry. Mona often comes downstage and shares with us the essence of characters, and how they fit into this complicated jigsaw puzzle.
She is married to Terje Rod-Larsen, played with a wonderful rectitude capable of melting into giddy humor by the always-talented Jefferson Mays. Larsen runs a foundation for applied social sciences and the married couple’s partnership, and ability to plot and deal in back channels is what precipitates the final accord.
The initial four at the negotiating table and dining table are Abu Ala, an incredible Anthony Azizi, and his truculent partner Hassan Asfour, the actor Dariush Kashani who brings a gut-wrenching gusto and Marxist energy to the role. The Israelis are Yair Hirschfeld, an economics professor at the University of Haifa, played with a wonderful rumpled intellect and humor by Daniel Oreskes; and his junior colleague Ron Pundak, brought to life by Daniel Jenkins.
These four are simultaneously attempting to reach a written accord and also testing Larsen’s theory on the idea of “gradualism” as a tool to reach an agreement. At the initial meetings, it is stressed that when the four men leave the negotiation table, and they are in there alone with no mediator, they emerge into the salon and everyone, including the inspired chef, Toril who radiates and is played by Henny Russell, must call each other by first names. There are to be lots of storytelling, massive consumption of alcohol and piles of waffles, herring, salmon, but never roast pork. The gaggle becomes close, even though there is a multitude of issues upon which they disagree.
These meetings continue in secret, as the group is especially wary of the meddling Americans, who we are reminded always seem to grab control and tend to muck things up. Ahh, yes. So the negotiations rumble forward and we are reminded that in life, in war, in politics, “Sometimes we are the pigeon, sometimes the statue.”
At the next stage of negotiation, the Israelis send a formal government official and things start to ramp up. Uri Savir was a director-general of the foreign ministry, and as played by Michael Aronov, he is a blast of humor, energy, and explosions when he bounds on stage. There are jokes and impressions of Arafat and Peres, and the agreement lurches and careens until we are shown the final moments when it was signed.
The large cast assumes multiple roles, including hapless German tourists who blunder into the villa where talks are being held, security men, assorted diplomats and even Shimon Peres. The switching of roles is as seamless as the furniture gliding and disappearing.
This is a history play. And like Shakespeare’s plays in that genre, this play requires copious work on the part of the audience. It is nearly three hours long, it is dense with fact and fast moving action as well as moments when it slows to a crawl and we await the next scene.
“Oslo” is a work peppered with humor and constant gobsmacking acting. In times when so much of what we sift through our sieve of social media is pablum, it is crucial that we remember the lessons of history and hard work that created actual if fleeting strides.
“Oslo” runs through July 2 at The Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65 Street in New York City. For information or tickets, cal 212-239-6300 or visit www.lct.org/shows/oslo-broadway
This story is part of our special report titled “Tony-Nominated Shows.” Want to read more? Here’s the full list.