Lincoln Center Theater
At the Mitzi E. Newhouse
Andre Bishop: Producing Artistic Director
(Oslo Web Page)
By J.T. Rogers
Michael Aronov, Anthony Azizi, Adam Dannheisser
Jennifer Ehle, Daniel Jenkins, Dariush Kashani, Jeb Kreager
Jefferson Mays, Christopher McHale, Daniel Oreskes
Angela Pierce, Henny Russell, Joseph Siravo, T. Ryder Smith
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Sets: Michael Yeargan
Costumes: Catherine Zuber
Lighting: Daniel Holder
Sound: Peter John Still
Projections: 59 Productions
Stage Manager: Cambra Overend
Casting: Daniel Swee
Managing Director: Adam Siegel
Exec. Dir., Development & Planning: Hattie K. Jutagir
Director of Marketing: Linda Mason Ross
General Press Agent: Philip Rinaldi
General Manager: Jessica Niebanck
Production Manager: Paul Smithyman
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
July 31, 2016 Matinee
One of the most satisfying plays, currently running on or off Broadway, is J.T. Rogers’ Oslo, about the backstage events that paved the way for the 1993 Oslo I Accord, finalized in the memorable Rose Garden handshake between Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel, and Yasir Arafat, the leader of the P.L.O., with President Clinton holding out his arms. Those backstage events occurred mainly in Oslo, Norway, 1992-1993. According to Playbill notes by the playwright, the play is Rogers’ “version of this history…locations condensed…chronology compressed”. Mr. Rogers also notes that the play’s director, the very busy Bartlett Sher, is a personal friend of the Norwegian couple at the center of the action, and Mr. Sher put Mr. Rogers together with the Norwegians, who served as the catalysts for the playwright’s extensive interviews and research. To be clear, Oslo, at the Mitzi Newhouse, is a masterpiece of docudrama, always propelled forward, with gut-wrenching passages mixed with high end humor. A stripped down stage, constantly in reconfiguration (like the Accord), with carefully placed tables, chairs, silver serving pieces, liquor, champagne, waffles and light fare by a Norwegian cook, lamps, wired telephones, water pitchers and teapots, lamps and stools, with the audience in quasi theater-in-the-round, envelops the unfolding events, as actors star, or double, or even triple in roles.
Early on, in the three-hour, two-intermission work, Jennifer Ehle narrates the setup for the audience, to frame the following ensemble extravaganza. Terje Rød-Larsen (Jefferson Mays) and Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle) are respectively Director of the Fafo Institute for Applied Social Sciences and Official in the Foreign Ministry, a married couple with an altruistic mission. Jan Egeland (Daniel Jenkins), Norway’s Deputy Foreign Minister, is Mona’s boss, Ahmed Qurie (“Abu Ala”) (Anthony Azizi) is Finance Minister of the P.L.O., Arafat’s rep in the process, and Shimon Peres (Daniel Oreskes) is Begin’s rep in the process, although the Israelis aggressively jostle for status and import, including Yossi Belin (Adam Dannheisser), Deputy Foreign Minister, Uri Savir (Michael Aronov), Director-General of the Foreign Ministry, and Joel Singer (Joseph Siravo), Senior Law Partner in a D.C. firm, looking out for his client, Israel.
Among other key players are Johan Jorgen Holst (T. Ryder Smith), Norwegian Foreign Minister and Jan’s boss, and Marianne Heiberg (Henny Russell), Fafo Institute Exec., who reports to Terje, a married couple, and Toril Grandal and Finn Grandal, the married housekeeper-cook and groundsman at the Borregaard estate, where Israelis and Palestinians enter a giant, formidable door for secretive, sequential talks, then take parlor breaks for their favorite home-cooked waffles, with sweet cream and preserves, enhanced with whiskey or tea. Rounding out the sizeable and impressive cast are Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani), the feisty, Official P.L.O. liaison with the Palestinian Delegation, Yair Hirschfeld (Daniel Oreskes) and Ron Pundak (Daniel Jenkins), both economics professors at the University of Haifa, an American Diplomat (Christopher McHale), a traveling German husband and wife (Jeb Kreager and Angela Pierce), Swedish Hostess (Henny Russell), and Thor Bjornevog and Trond Gundersen, two Norwegian Police Intelligence Officers (Christopher McHale and Jeb Kreager).
After this endless list of actors and longer list of characters, I can happily note, once again, that Bartlett Sher has developed Mr. Rogers’ play into a mesmerizing, magnetic theatrical experience. The ensemble works cohesively, each member enjoying a generous, spotlighted scene. Terje and Mona host the Palestinians and Israelis as if they’re guests at a cozy dinner party, all the while focusing on the political players’ humanity, their food tastes, and their families, as they chip away at intransiences and smooth the cracks of prejudices. When there’s a tense Israeli-Palestinian impasse, filled with fervent fights, Mona and Terje suggest that Uri Savir and Abu Ala take a private walk, which leads to a discovery that both their daughters are named Maya. It’s one breakthrough at a time, another waffle and whiskey break, another cup of tea, that finally leads to a mutual agreement that the Palestinians maintain responsibility for a determined territory and gain self-government. They also agree to Israeli army withdrawal from certain territories. Shimon Peres shows up and surreptitiously signs the accord, tabling leftover topics for a later agreement. The excellent projections by 59 Productions gave the seamless dialogue context and weight.
Jennifer Ehle’s highpoint was a surprise scene within tense back and forth, when a German couple arrived at the castle for a reserved vacation room. These negotiations were all under cover and top secret, with international press and public totally unaware. With some delicate talking points, Mona dismisses the couple, and Uri Savir shouted “What a woman”! As the Israeli rep, Mr. Aronov had personified a man with sexy, dashing persona. As Mona was essentially all alone with over a dozen male characters, Jefferson Mays had his work cut out to keep his wife in his corner. Theirs was a marriage made of steel. Mr. Mays, as Terje, riveted the eye throughout, always in dynamic affect, even when still and quiet. Anthony Azizi, as Abu Ala, and Dariush Kashani, as Hassan Asfour, the only Palestinians present, were at times seething and brash, while moments later they’d party with whiskey. This play is truly a teachable moment for diplomacy. Daniel Oreskes, as one Israeli professor who couldn’t get respect, returned as Shimon Peres, commanding bows and negotiated concessions. The nuanced power relationships, such as Mona’s diplomatic superior being married to Terje’s assistant, both onstage in early scenes, creating resistance to this unlikely, underground accord, were fascinating.
Kudos to director, Bartlett Sher, to set designer Michael Yeargan, and to lighting and sound designers, Donald Holder and Peter John Still. And, kudos to Lincoln Center Theater and to the extraordinary acting ensemble.