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May 29, 2017

"Oslo" Review

Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays (T. Charles Erickson)

By Anita Gates

Two things: (1) I like plays about people drinking Champagne, eating, gabbing and doing crazy things like jumping up on the furniture. (2) I cannot think of a more deadly-boring subject than international peace negotiations. Yet J.T. Rogers’s “Oslo,” which chronicles the secret meetings in Norway between Israelis and Palestinians in the early ’90s, is one of the most vivid and fascinating productions of this or any other season. Maybe that’s because it involves sophisticated, intelligent, intense people drinking Champagne, eating, gabbing and occasionally leaping onto the furniture. Not to mention drunk-dancing, yelling and throwing things.

How do you persuade people who truly hate each other to get along? Make it personal, a handsome Norwegian couple decided just over a quarter-century ago. Mona Juul was a diplomat; her husband, Terje Rød-Larsen, was a social scientist, and combining their theories and skills turned out to work better than most people could have believed. Before you know it -- as demonstrated in “Oslo,” directed by the formidable Bartlett Sher (“The King and I”) at the Vivian Beaumont Theater -- an Israeli man and a Palestinian man are bonding because they have daughters with the same name.

In real life, as in the play, the secret meetings that Juul and Rød-Larsen arranged and held over a period of nine months led to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. A few months later, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat were signing papers in the White House Rose Garden, with a proud, young President Bill Clinton looking on.

“Oslo” has been praised to high heaven this year and nominated for a slew of theater awards. It’s up for seven Tonys, including best play and three acting honors: for Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle, who play the couple; and for Michael Aronov, who portrays the lead Israeli negotiator like a slightly demented but lovable rock star. It’s nominated for two Drama Desk Awards, and it’s already won the Obie and the Lucille Lortel, Outer Critics’ Circle and Drama League Awards for best new play.

Yes, that’s a mix of Broadway and Off Broadway award organizations. It works that way sometimes: “Oslo” opened last summer at Lincoln Center, in the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, which is an Off Broadway house, then moved this spring to the larger Vivian Beaumont Theater, upstairs in the same Lincoln Center building, which is officially a Broadway venue. All within one awards-qualification year.

The play looks simultaneously grand and spare on the Beaumont’s stage, laid out in appropriately Scandinavian-minimalist set design (with ornate touches) by Michael Yeargan. When the delegates go behind closed doors and negotiate, we remain on the outside. The acting is so uniformly knockout-good that it’s easy to forget this is a play about men in gray suits and drab raincoats until you look at the production photos. 

“Oslo” has to be called a drama, because the stakes are so high and because it looks at profound  questions about human interaction. It’s promoted as a “darkly comic epic.” Sher, in a promotional video for the production, compares it to “a binge-watch of ‘Homeland.’”

The play runs almost three full hours; for me, it dragged just a tiny bit in the second act but came back stronger than ever.

The epilogue is the saddest part.

Vivian Beaumont Theater,150 West 65th Street (Lincoln Center),


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