Always motivated to write about global complexities, J. T. Rogers presents the conflicting realities of statesmanship and politics in Oslo, now hiking the temperature in Lincoln Center Theater’s air-conditioned Mitzi E. Newhouse.
“I have never met an Israeli — face to face”…
Check that. Instead of “must have happened,” perhaps substitute “might have happened.” As a result of his research, Rogers has identified many, if not all, of the players in the negotiations and, appropriating them as characters, imagines what they could have said during the tense talks — talks that eventually led to comprises and, eventually, an iconic and historic White House handshake presided over by President Bill Clinton — an otherwise minor player in the (temporary) breakthrough.
Using not only imagined dialogue but incorporating what is already well-known about the accords, Rogers’ three-act, three-hour drama certainly has a pungent air of verisimilitude. (There are precedents for this play, such as Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, concerning a 1941 meeting between two legendary physicists — for reasons that remain open to speculation, even today.)
The Oslo Accords are so named because it was initiated in Norway by Terje Rod-Larsen (Jefferson Mays), director of the Fafo Institute for Applied Sciences, and his wife Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle), who worked under Johan Jorgen Holst (T. Ryder Smith), then Norway’s foreign minister. Holst, a diplomat, was unhappy with the unorthodox steps taken, without his knowledge, to set the circumstances for the accords into motion.
Consequently, Rogers — whose previous plays include Blood and Gifts and The Overwhelming — has produced an opus that anyone intrigued by the way politics are greased couldn’t do better than to tune into.
A pungent air of verisimilitude…
Everything that transpires in Oslo is dramatic, but talky: don’t let anyone argue that strict attention needn’t be paid to every sentence uttered. As negotiations continue, with predictable obstacles cropping up, progress slowly is achieved and meaning mitigating friendships between dedicated enemies grow. “I have never met an Israeli — face to face,” Qurie remarks at the prospect of greeting Hirschfeld.
With the months of 1993 inching by, a few participants in the process become threateningly stubborn — at least as Rogers writes it. One is Uri Savir (Michael Aronov), the hyper-kinetic, scatological Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who becomes the chief negotiator and demonstrates disdain for his earlier counterparts. Another participant is Joel Singer (Joseph Siravo), a senior partner at a DC law firm who arrives skeptical of everything and everyone preceding him. (Salty language isn’t confined to Savir. It’s rife throughout the play.) Rogers also deftly uses humor, such as when the negotiators tell politically incorrect jokes mocking Israelis and Palestinians alike — laughter as a diplomatic aid. Numerous wisecracks definitely mirror life.
On a simple Michael Yeargan set representing numerous locales (Oslo, Cairo, Tel Aviv, London) and constantly requiring actors to push and pull furniture (calling Actors’ Equity…), Bartlett Sher directs with a traffic-cop’s skill. (Sher’s revival of The King and I just closed upstairs at the Vivian Beaumont.)
A beautifully balanced play.
Rogers’ chief achievement is a beautifully balanced play. Commissioned by Lincoln Center Theater, where concern for subscribers (many of them Jewish) is likely considered from time to time, Oslo doesn’t favor a political side. Certainly it doesn’t build up the place of the US in the events of the play, although a well-informed American diplomat, played by Christopher McHale, does arrive to announce that he knows all about what’s going on.
But if political correctness has been kept at bay, another element has unmistakably eased in, and it leaves one to wonder if it’s there to send audience members — at Lincoln Center Theater, surely more Jews than Palestinians — out of the hushed auditorium. Consider this your spoiler alert.
Rogers has the Accords signed, and then the cast members face the audience for an epilogue detailing where the characters are today. At that point, Mays, as Rod-Larsen, enters the audience to ask whether, given today’s grizzly Middle East, the possibility for improvement exists. He queries:
Do you see it? Do you?
At the press-night audience I attended, no one responded. Rod-Larsen said “Good.” What might that mean? Since it can’t really be termed politically correct, perhaps the playwright has invented a new category: wishfully correct.