Theatre Review: Oslo
Oslo by J. T. Rogers
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont
Reviewed by Scott Klavan
May 10, 2017
The only thing as hard as negotiating a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians might be writing a successful play about it. This is the challenge taken up by playwright J.T. Rogers and his new Broadway play Oslo, directed by Bartlett Sher, currently running at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, part of Lincoln Center, the well-known arts complex in Manhattan’s west 60s, about twenty blocks north of Broadway proper. Oslo recounts the secret 1993 meetings between Israeli and Palestinian representatives organized by Norway’s Terje Rod-Larsen, a diplomat and director of the Fafo Institute, and his wife Mona Juul, an official in the country’s Foreign Ministry. The Norwegians hoped that keeping the overbearing giant United States out of the negotiations and holding the talks in a neutral country would enable the participants to treat each other as full human beings rather than cardboard enemies. But there were many obstacles: the continuing Intifada, with the Israeli army facing assaults by rock-throwing Arab youths rebelling against what they saw as occupation and oppression; Israel had outlawed government reps talking with the PLO, the reigning Arab head of the disputed territory of The West Bank and Gaza, the group and its leader Yasser Arafat seen as terrorists by the Jews; both sides claimed the city of Jerusalem as its own; the Norwegian Foreign Minister Johan Jorgen Holst was adamantly opposed to the project, thinking Rod-Larsen a meddling “dilettante”.
Undeterred, Terje gets Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin to send two professors as unofficial negotiators for that country; the plan is kept from Israel’s Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The professors, smart but socially awkward Yair Hirschfeld and Ron Pundak, meet with PLO Foreign Minister Ahmed Qurie, and liaison Dariush Kashani, a fiery devoted leftist, for initially cautious, then tense and irritable, meetings in the Norwegian capital of Oslo. With Terje and Mona as gracious hosts, wining and dining the negotiators, the four gradually make progress on issues such as control of the Gaza Strip. Beilin, sensing an opportunity for an historic breakthrough, reveals the talks to his government and then gets charismatic Uri Savir, Director-General of the Foreign Minister, to replace the professors as head negotiator. Weathering stumbles and outbursts, the group of lifelong enemies develops a guarded friendship. A detailed agreement is written, with dynamic Israeli lawyer Joel Singer relaying the demands of Rabin and his colleagues.
The sheer amount of complex names and titles in that last paragraph illustrates the high obstacles that the play and its playwright have to overcome to make the tale live on stage. Veteran, decorated director Sher, who has triumphed with many productions at Lincoln Center—revivals of The King & I, The Light in The Piazza and South Pacific- and on Broadway—the recent revival of Fiddler On The Roof (reviewed in EIL) and The Bridges Of Madison County– keeps the cast moving up, down and across stage, bringing in desks, tables, and a bar for the breaks in the negotiations when the men drink, tell jokes and try to relax with each other. Terje Rod-Larsen (played by Jefferson Mays) and Mona (Jennifer Ehle) serve as narrators, explaining how the twisting, troubled events in the Oslo rooms and outside in the Middle East could ruin the talks. (News footage of the time is occasionally projected on the back wall.) As expected, Sher’s staging is effective, maintaining a fast pace for the almost three hour show.
The actors also do their jobs, using ceaseless energy, heat and fervor in the performance of their part or parts (several double). Daniel Oreskes’s rumpled “Columbo” interpretation of professor Hirschfeld is funny and amiable, and he returns as Shimon Peres in the second act; it took this reviewer’s looking at the program to realize that Daniel Jenkins was playing both Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Egeland and negotiator Ron Pundak, so deeply did he disappear into the roles; Dariush Kashani keeps blisteringly angry Hassan Asfour believable and honest; Jeff Still takes what could have been a stolid lawyer in Singer and turns him into a forceful and real person. Michael Aronov’s Uri Savir is the star part and the actor’s magnetic inventiveness scores; Adam Dannheiser as Yossi Beilin has fine earthy moments in the first act, but the character fades away as the story progresses. In fact, one feels that there might have been a little more Yossi and a little less Uri by the close. But that’s the play, not the actors.
All this is to say that Oslo is polished and authoritative. But does it solve the dilemma posed by the topic itself? Not really. No matter how often Terje and Mona tell us in the audience that the story we’re watching is fascinating, unprecedented, that amazing things happened, (which they tell us, often), and the characters shout their opinions nose-to-nose (occurring in quite a few scenes) something’s missing. It could be the writing, which is functional but unspectacular. The jokes the men tell are pretty funny, the moral pronouncements okay, the dialogue satisfactory, straightforward and basic. But that’s not the whole of the deficiency here. Is it the two ostensible leads, Torje and Mona? Despite assured rendering of the lines by the experienced and admired Mays and Ehle, their characters and relationship to each other never crystallize into something focused and engrossing. But that’s not the central flaw either.
It just seems that the take, the starting-point, keeps the play down, dries it out. This is a secularized version of a spiritual conflict. The reason that the Jews and Arabs have never agreed, that they hate and kill each other, and that many U.S. presidents since Israel’s founding in 1948 have tried and failed to make peace between the two groups, is that the countries and people are not arguing over territory, but God. Their dispute does not concern land, but Holy Land. The argument over who presides over Jerusalem (which also, of course, includes Christians) is not about a city, buildings, etc., but a city where each religion’s God was, and is, truly alive, vital, felt; where the deity is celebrated, engrained, and by enemies, attacked. The claim to the city goes back thousands of years, to the Old Testament. The two sides can’t agree because there is no negotiating over one’s faith, one’s version of ultimate reality; it is seen by the faithful as indisputable. At one point in the play, it is said that the negotiators are not “westerners” and that’s right. But the play lets that drop, never explores the distinction between the men whose devotion has locked them into their own worlds and the outsiders butting up against this historic intransigence. The approach to the portrayal is Western/American alone and never takes off.
Without the Unseen, magic, mystery, call it what you want, the play and its characters lapse into prosaism. Yelling is not necessarily passion: on-stage and off, that is an expression of deeply held feeling, belief. Lacking a core intensity, Oslo is finally as flat as the paper on which the pre-computerized negotiation was written. Throughout, the play seems to be building to a scene wherein the deep-seeded beliefs of the men will explode onto the stage. It never happens. A particularly frustrating example is a later sequence where Uri and Qurie take a walk together. The men talk of their families, are getting to something personal, revelatory and then…they drain away to unearned hugs, to nothing.
The production team are theater pros and this presentational choice was made purposely; the religious aspect is never mentioned once on stage. The objective was obviously to depict the political and governmental maneuverings behind the negotiations and leave out the Judaism and Islam that persistently threatened to thwart its success. Was it made due to fear of offending people, given the vitriol and violence that still surrounds these religions and struggles today? Or was it merely a show business decision: they guessed that everybody had heard too much of the synagogue/mosque stuff and wanted to make the piece a commercial procedural “thriller” instead? (And on that one level, it worked: the play just garnered seven Tony Award nominations, including Best Play.)
Whatever the reason, Oslo never convinces us that this kind-of-maybe-not successful negotiation of the ‘90s was as rare and powerful as the playwright thinks it is. Terje’s summing-up speech to the audience at the final curtain, after the assassination of Rabin sends the Middle East back to turmoil, is wordy and somewhat contrived, epitomizing the problem that the play never solves. Leaving the theater, an older woman theatergoer, instead of being moved, roused, said this only: “They must have very sore throats.”
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published inBest American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 2014, he starred in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, earning him a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival 2015. He directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, at the United Solo Festival in New York, and a series of staged readings of a new comedy, Sheila & Angelo, at the Dramatist Guild. In 2015, he appeared in the Off-Broadway production of the musical Sayonara, for Pan Asian Rep. Scott directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival.