I am a political theater junkie. I have been transfixed by such shows as Frost/Nixon, Brian Cranston as President Lyndon Johnson in All the Way and even last season’s Charles III. Now I can add the new Off-Broadway drama (transferring to Broadway in Spring 2017) Oslo to my list. The play is based on the real-life, secret negotiations facilitated by a Norwegian diplomat and her sociologist husband that led to the Oslo Accords, a document that laid out the groundwork for a peace process between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
There is a lot of talk in this crackling, three hour, two intermission production. But the material and its presentation by playwright J.T. Rogers is so enthralling and intriguing that you don’t notice the time. Rogers gives us the requisite tense, shouting match negotiation sessions, but they are only one component of the complexities between these two hostile, mistrusting opponents seeking to overcome their adversarial relationship to forge peace and understanding. There are no simple black and white answers. Prejudices and biases you may bring to the show will probably be turned upside down, which only adds to the riveting and thoughtful nature of the play.
There are many characters in Oslo. The primary players are Mona Jund (Jennifer Erhle), the Norwegian diplomat who was instrumental in initiating the talks. While a more behind-the-scenes person and a buffer between her government and the other involved parties she, nonetheless, is persistent in her beliefs. Erhle is superb in her portrayal of the resolute envoy. She is unflinching and forceful in her performance. Her husband Terje Rod-Larsen (Jefferson Mays) is a novice, but unshakeable negotiator who gently, yet vigorously continues to push the peace agenda forward. Mays is convincing in his resolve and skillfully straddles the fine line between the hubris and self-effacement of his character. Actor Anthony Azizi, as the leader of the two-member PLO team, Ahmed Qurie, gives a layered performance. He is stoic, suspicious, sometimes boisterous, but determined for the peace process to succeed. Michael Aronov, as Uri Savir, head of the Israeli group, is a perfect counterpoint to his Palestinian adversary. Aronov embodies his role with fortitude and passion. He is fun loving; a man full of life. However, when he switches on his negotiating persona he is no-nonsense, uncompromising and unapologetic for his words and views.
Director Barlett Sher, most recently known for his large-scale Broadway musical revivals, takes a wordy, complex script and presents it in an intelligent and understandable manner. He smartly concentrates on the personalities behind the negotiations as a way to flesh out the story. The emotions, temperament, and individual idiosyncrasies of the characters become the driving force of the play as opposed to the negotiation sessions themselves. He slides the large ensemble of performers in and off the stage with deftness and precision. He takes the minimal, circular set by Michael Yeargan to focus the attention on the performers and, in the small confines of the Mitzi Newhouse theater, gives us a birds eye view of the proceedings. We are like flies on the wall witnessing history in the making.
Oslo, a captivating historical drama through August 28th at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, moving to its larger venue, the Vivian Beaumont, in March 2017.