Five years ago, Director Bartlett Sher introduced Norwegian sociologist Terje-Rod Larsen to playwright J.T. Rogers. Larsen shared a little known backstory of the 1993 Oslo peace accord with the author who, it seems, had long wanted to write about the Israelis and Palestinians. A revealing history describing the secret involvement of Norway, unofficial representatives from both sides and, in particular, his wife, diplomat Mona Juul (then an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry) and himself (at the time director of the Fafo Institute for Applied Social Sciences) provides the basis for this riveting play. Though Rogers later interviewed the couple in depth, he stayed away from other survivors preferring to put his own stamp on participants.
Jennifer Ehle, Jefferson Mays
Like Stephen Sondheim’s song “Someone in a Tree” (Pacific Overtures) or Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, Rogers embroiders on what he was told, filling in that which couldn’t be observed. He also admittedly sexed up the characters, making them younger, combining and omitting for dramatic purposes. The implausible-but-true facts are, however, front and center with much of what the author deems “crazy” notably accurate.
In the course of three acts (with two intermissions), we’re made to feel like voyeurs, flies on the wall of a volatile narrative peppered with unexpected comedy emerging when historical enemies let their hair down. There are even jokes and sharp parodies of political figures that emerge when historical enemies let their hair down. Partly narrated by smart, level-headed Mona with wry asides to us, the story illuminates a roster of galvanizing players. It’s not necessary to know the accord’s public history, though some knowledge concerning both sides’ contentions would help.
Daniel Oreskes, Anthony Azizi, Daniel Jenkins, Dariush Kashani
The first act opens and closes on a dinner party at which Terje (Jefferson Mays) and Mona (Jennifer Ehle) intend to inform incipient Norwegian Prime Minister Johan Jorgan Host (T. Ryder Smith) and his wife Marianne Heiberg (Henny Russell) of about 9 months of clandestine meetings they’ve been facilitating between the P.L.O. and Israelis. The initially congenial evening is interrupted by two calls on side by side telephones, one from Israeli Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin (Adam Dannheisser), the other from a P.L.O. representative.
Meeting participants include: fox-like P.L.O. Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi) and unruly Marxist Palestinian, Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani) on one side of the table and wary, economic academics Yair Hirschfeld (Daniel Oreskes) and Ron Pundak (Daniel Jenkins) – sent first so as not to involve the actual government on the other. The Israelis are later joined i.e. “upgraded” to tenacious Washington lawyer Joel Singer (Joseph Siravo) and cabinet member Uri Savir (Michael Aronov) who climbs out a Paris hotel window to secretly make his way to meetings, “because as we all know,” Mona dryly comments, “every mid-level Israeli diplomat is a rock star in Norway.”
Daniel Oreskes, Daniel Jenkins, Jefferson Mays, Anthony Azizi, Dariush Kashani
Nor has Terje and Mona’s relationship been depicted as cardboard background. The sociologist is clearly drawn as wildcard instigator and driving force while his highly esteemed wife navigates diplomacy and keeps him at least in sight of protocol. “Take one more step forward,” she vehemently warns as they observe Qurie and Savir, “and I’ll divorce you.”
Acts Two and Three take us through the machinations/demands of the two factions both of whom risk international sanctions. Precautions are taken, but breached. Though we finally meet Shimon Peres (Daniel Oreskes), Arafat and Rabin never appear. Being aware of the outcome, does nothing to hinder absorption.
Every man is objectively depicted, his work and private selves played with specificity. As 60 years of habitual hatred and mistrust come to fore, remarks are condescending, insults searing, yet passions can turn on a dime.
When Savir describes his time in New York, it’s like watching an infectiously enthusiastic teenager. His parody of “asshole” Henry Kissinger verges on incendiary, yet ends in laughter. Fathers are remembered, daughter’s names shared, lots and lots of Johnny Walker Black imbibed. (The future film company will no doubt be paid for placement.)
Anthony Azizi, Dariush Kashani, Michael Aronov, Joseph Siravo, background-Angela Pierce
Though, as we know, the center didn’t hold, what was attempted was remarkable in its approach, risk, and reward. This is an eminently human saga of uplifting compromise where none seemed the least bit possible. Our obstructive Republican Congress, among others, might learn something.
Ensemble work is superb. Jefferson Mays’ rabbitty alertness and nuanced reaction to setbacks, Michael Aronov’s energy and theatricality and Jennifer Ehle’s preternatural, decidedly feminine equanimity add immeasurably. Angela Pierce is charming as the appreciated cook who, Hassan declares, “is to food what Vladimir Lenin is to land reform.”
Director Barlett Sher creates memorable stage images – allowing all three sections of audience sightline, enhances character with physicality, and paces the mercurial stop/start piece masterfully.
Michael Yeargan’s fluid set works in tandem with evocative Projections by 59Projections and Lighting by Donald Holder- love the snow!
Photos by T. Charles Erickson
Opening: Michael Aronov, Jefferson Mays, Anthony Azizi
Oslo by J.T. Rogers
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Through August 28, 2016
The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center
Reopens at The Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center on March 23, 2017