Aisle View: International Incident

04/14/2017 08:00 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2017
Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays in <em>Oslo</em>
Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays in Oslo

What was terrific last July is now superb. J.T. Rogers’ Oslo is the most engrossing new drama on Broadway. Director Bartlett Sher and his excellent cast have ramped up the tension, resulting in an altogether riveting evening. Let us add, a riveting three-hour evening which breathlessly speeds by.

Rogers gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the negotiations which resulted in the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993. These were signed, to great acclaim, by Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat at Bill Clinton’s White House, with the mismatched trio ultimately sharing the Nobel Prize for Peace. But the headliners were not “in the room where it happened,” as it were; neither is the protagonist of Oslo, a Norwegian sociologist named Terje Rød-Larsen (Jefferson Mays).

Terje, having spent time studying conditions in the Gaza Strip, realizes that no resolution can be found in the official, American-sponsored peace talks (with Israelis and Palestinians speaking indirectly, through foreign intermediaries). Working with personal contacts on both sides, the neutral Norwegian brings a Palestinian minister and a well-connected Israeli economist to a borrowed house in Oslo. Over nine months of intermittent meetings, the unofficial talks develop into a mutually workable pact.

This brokered peace was seen as miraculous at the time; and on an obviously different scale, it is near miraculous that playwright Rogers has turned what might have been dryly dusty history into spellbinding, edge-of-your-seat drama.

Oslo was masterful in its initial Lincoln Center Theater production initial Lincoln Center Theater production at the 288-seat Mitzi Newhouse Theater. The move upstairs to the 1,047-seat Vivian Beaumont was most welcome, given the throngs of dedicated theatergoers who are likely to love this play. But the transfer raised the question: how would this small, claustrophobic drama work on the larger, airier scale of the Beaumont?

Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle in <em>Oslo</em>
Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle in Oslo

The answer is: equally well, or maybe better. At the Newhouse, Oslo benefitted from the closeness. Two Palestinians and two Israelis locked together, each side facing down the other over a small coffee table. Michael Yeargan’s set has been reconfigured for the considerably larger space, bringing a new element to the production; something vaster and far-reaching. With the actors spaced across the Beaumont stage, there is a new, global sense added to the play. Israelis and Palestinians are separated by a literal gulf. This has an even greater effect on the Norwegian Terje—who, by virtue of being neither Israeli nor Palestinian, and not being an actual diplomat—stands even more isolated than the others and from the others. One gets the notion that he is isolated, in the same room but in another world altogether.

Mr. Mays—returning from his comedic spree as the prissy Bensinger of the Tribune in The Front Page—dominates the play as the unlikely peacemaker. At least some awards voters are already fretting over the inevitable necessity of favoring Mays over Kevin Kline of Present Laughter, or Kline over Mays. Which points to the absurdity of competitive awards; but someone has to win, we suppose. Jennifer Ehle, as diplomat Mona Juul (and wife to Terje) seems to have grown in her role; Mona is now an ever-constant presence. Ehle is precisely right. Even when she stands merely watching Terje, we sense her pulling the strings in a way that didn’t quite come across in the earlier production.

A return visit to the world of Oslo allows us to further appreciate the supporting players; given the swift pace and the substantial doubling, you might understandably overlook some of the participants. Anthony Azizi and Michael Aronov are matched as the chief negotiators: powerful, wily and bordering on violent. Away from the table, both bring humor and humanity to their roles. Daniel Oreskes (as the canny and disheveled Yair Hirschfeld) and Daniel Jenkins (as the disheveled Ron Pundak) pair as the Israeli academics, referred to at one point as Laurel and Hardy. Oreskes doubles as a pointed caricature of Shimon Peres, while Jenkins also appears as a too-suave-by-half Norwegian diplomat.

T. Ryder Smith and Henny Russell portray the Norwegian foreign minister Johan Horgen Holst and his wife Marianne Heiberg. (In the nepotistic world of Norway, Mona works for Johan while Marianne works for Terje.) They double as the married servants at the manor house, butler Finn and cook Toril; Toril provides much humor, during the tense negotiations, with her famous waffles. Ms. Russell essays a third role, in the final stages, as a tersely brusque Swedish hostess during the Shimon Peres scenes.

Michael Aronov, Jefferson Mays and Anthony Azizi in <em>Oslo</em>
Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Michael Aronov, Jefferson Mays and Anthony Azizi in Oslo

All of this is combined into a Middle Eastern maelstrom of diplomacy and dramaturgy by director Sher. He has demonstrated his skill again and again, with such items as LCT’s South Pacific, The King and I, Golden Boy and The Light in the Piazza. Even so, the work here is exceptional. What’s more, he can be said to have instigated the project. Sher invited his friend Terje to see Roger’s 2012 Blood and Gifts at LCT; introduced the economist to the playwright; and arranged for LCT to commission the play that became Oslo.

As for Rogers, this play marks his third New York production and his Broadway debut. Oslo is quite an achievement, and quite a play, and quite an evening of high-stakes theatricality.

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The Lincoln Center Theater production of Oslo opened April 13, 2017 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater

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