At a few minutes after noon on a sunny Monday, 13 September 1993, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman, Yasser Arafat, reached across President Bill Clinton and shook hands at a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House. Seconds earlier, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, the foreign policy aide for the PLO, (along with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev of Russia), signed the ”Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements,” better known as the Oslo Accords, while three thousand spectators, including former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush, watched in amazement.
One year later, Arafat, Peres, and Rabin were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East.” A year after that, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in Tel Aviv at a peace rally by a right-wing Israeli militant who opposed the Oslo Accords. (Arafat died in 2004 at 75 of causes still clouded in uncertainty.)
But that very public signing ceremony has a twisty, tortuous back story, mostly cloaked in secrecy, that involved a number of less-familiar names, including a handful of Norwegian diplomats and international-affairs academics, PLO functionaries, and Israeli university professors. The Oslo process, in fact, stretched back to April 1992, almost a year-and-a-half before the historic signing in Washington, and centered on the Borregaard Manor, a 19th-century wooden mansion 60 miles east of the Norwegian capital. These secret back-channel meetings are the threads out of which J. T. Rogers wove his new play, Oslo, now having its world première at the Lincoln Center Theater.
Oslo began previews at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, LCT’s Off-Broadway house, on 16 June and opened on 11 July. The current production will close on 28 August, but Lincoln Center Theater announced on 27 July that it will transfer with the same cast to the company’s Broadway venue, the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The Broadway run is scheduled to begin previews on 23 March 2017 and to open on 13 April, allowing it to compete for Tony Awards in the 2017-18 season (which officially ends around the end of April). My frequent theater companion, Diana, and I saw the evening performance on Friday, 22 July.
As the successor to Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ original stage company, the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center (1965-72), the Lincoln Center Theater was established in 1985 under the leadership of Chairman (and former New York City mayor) John V. Lindsay, Director Gregory Mosher, and Executive Producer Bernard Gersten. (The theaters at Lincoln Center were run by Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival—now known as the Joseph Papp Public Theater—from 1973 to 1977. The theaters were either dark or rented to commercial producers for the ensuing three years, then for one year they were operated by the short-lived Lincoln Center Theater Company. Renovation then closed the space until 1983.)
Currently under the direction of Chairman J. Tomilson Hill and Producing Artistic Director André Bishop, LCT produces dozens of productions for millions of theatergoers at the 1060-seat Beaumont, the company’s Tony-eligible Broadway house; the 299-seat Newhouse, its Off-Broadway venue; the 112-seat Claire Tow Theater, the experimental and emerging theater site, and other spaces on and off Broadway.
In June 2012, LCT opened a new two-story addition on the roof of the Vivian Beaumont. The expansion includes the Tow Theater, rehearsal rooms, office space, and a roof terrace. It’s the home of LCT3, the company’s program devoted to producing the work of new playwrights, directors, and designers. Through tours, telecasts, films, publications, recordings, and its website, Lincoln Center Theater reaches audiences around the country and the world.
In addition to its public productions, LCT also offers the Directors Lab, a developmental symposium for new and emerging artists; Open Stages, an arts-in-education program operated in cooperation with New York City public schools; Lincoln Center Theater Review, a literary journal available in the Theater's lobbies and distributed free-of-charge to schools and libraries, and the Platform Series of free conversations with LCT artists.
Rogers, 48, lives and writes in Brooklyn, but his plays frequently deal with matters of world import. In the Guardian of London, Michael Billington described Rogers as “that rare creature: an American dramatist who writes about global issues.” Before Oslo, examining the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he composed Blood and Gifts in 2012, a play which moves from Washington, D.C., back rooms to huts on the Afghan border during the Soviet occupation from 1981 to 1991. Like Oslo, it was staged at LCT’s Newhouse Theater after a début at the Lyttelton Theatre of London’s Royal National Theatre. His earlier plays include The Overwhelming (Roundabout Theater Company, 2007), set in early 1994 on the eve of the Rwandan genocide, and Madagascar (Salt Lake Acting Company, 2004; SPF Summer Play Festival, New York, 2005) takes place in a hotel room in Rome. The playwright said in his 2008 Laura Pels Keynote address for A.R.T./New York (Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York), the organization of non-profit theaters in New York City, that his travels made him realize “that as a playwright I had to lift my eyes from my navel and look out into the world.”
Rogers’s work has won him considerable recognition, including multiple awards for his plays and his writing. In 2009, Rogers was the only U.S. playwright among 11 British dramatists to contribute to The Great Game: Afghanistan for London’s Tricycle Theatre, out of which came Blood and Gifts. In 2004, Rogers served as artist-in-residence at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. He’s also been guest artist at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri; and lectured at the schools of drama at Columbia University in New York City, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois; Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut; the University of Utah in Salt Lake City; and the Claremont McKenna College School of Economics, Claremont, California. Rogers has a 1990 BFA in acting from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston-Salem, which awarded the playwright an honorary doctorate in 2009; he’s also lectured at UNCSA’s theater program.
According to Rogers’s own account, Oslo, which was workshopped at the New Play Development Conference at Drexel University in Philadelphia, part of PlayPenn, a new-play development program, in July 2015, began over drinks one evening in December 2012. Bartlett Sher, the director of Blood and Gifts, which was on stage at LCT at the time (and is the director of Oslo), invited a friend who’s a sociologist from Norway to see a performance. Sher’s friend turned out to be Terje Rød-Larsen, director of an Oslo think tank devoted to applied social sciences. After the show, Rød-Larsen, the central figure in Rogers’s yet-to-be-written play, approached the playwright and “said that he had been waiting years for someone to tell a story that involved him and his wife [Mona Juul, a Norwegian diplomat and another main character in Oslo] and the 1993 Oslo peace accord between Israel and the PLO. And he had decided that I was that person.” At a restaurant near Lincoln Center, Rød-Larsen spoke of his involvement as Rogers asked questions. The playwright explained, “I had watched the Rose Garden ceremony on TV that had President Clinton, Shimon Peres, and Yasser Arafat. But I didn’t remember anything Norwegian about it.” Engaging in extensive research, “I learned the full story of how the Oslo Accords came to be—a story that is documented, yet almost completely unknown.”
“I had been wanting to write about the Israelis and Palestinians for years,” admitted Rogers, who’d retained a memory of that historic handshake 23 years on. “But I hadn’t found the right story.” Rød-Larsen and Juul’s tale seemed like the right one through which to examine “the meaning and legitimacy of” the Oslo process “that led to that handshake.” As he acknowledged, “Both as a dramatist and a citizen, I remain gripped by the unimaginable political will it took for those on both sides to create the opportunity for that handshake, and by the courage it took to stand face to face with the enemy as they struggled to find a way forward—together.”
Rogers cautions that while the play is “the story of a hidden history that lies behind a public history,” it’s his “version of this history.” The events Rogers recounts all occurred, but not necessarily in the order or in the time span laid out in the script. (The playwright insists, however, that “the lively, sometimes even crazy stuff in the play is mostly true.”) Each of the characters is “named for a real person,” Rogers affirmed, but some actual players in the real-life drama were eliminated and others have been reconceived “through my sensibility” from their historical counterparts. The words the characters say in the play are Rogers’s words.
Though it essentially follows the arc of the historical outline, the plot of Oslo revolves around Terje Rød-Larsen (Jefferson Mays), director of the Fafo Institute for Applied Social Sciences, and his wife Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle), an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. In early 1992, the couple propose the novel idea of initiating and facilitating secret back-channel talks between representatives of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization that became known as the Oslo Channel. Rød-Larsen and Juul first have to convince the Norwegian foreign minister, Johan Jorgen Holst (T. Ryder Smith) and his deputy, Jan Egeland (Daniel Jenkins), to take the enormous risk they propose. Multilateral negotiations sponsored by the U.S. are already in progress in Madrid since 1991 (without the PLO, which had been labeled a terrorist organization), an attempt to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but they hadn’t been getting anywhere. What the two Norwegians are putting forward was a secret, under-the-radar negotiation without the interference of a major world power and the spotlight that goes with that. They’ve gone to great lengths to keep the Oslo Channel unknown to both the Norwegians’ foreign ministry superiors and the Americans.
Aside from the secrecy, though, there were other potential problems. For one, it was against Israeli law for an official of the country to meet with a member of the PLO, so the organizers select a couple of economics professors from the University of Haifa, Yair Hirschfeld (Daniel Oreskes) and Ron Pundak (Jenkins) who have no official link to the Israeli government. The New York Times’ Ben Brantley refers to them as “Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern-ish”—whether Shakespearean or Stoppardian isn’t specified. For another, no high-ranking PLO official would risk his position in the organization and even his life by meeting openly with Israelis, even with tacit approval by Chairman Arafat, so the Norwegians invite Ahmed Qurie, also known as Abu Ala (Anthony Azizi), the Finance Minister of the PLO, and Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani), the official PLO liaison with the Palestinian Delegation at the talks in Madrid. The matter of secrecy and avoiding the spotlight is accomplished by holding the sessions at the Borregaard Manor outside Oslo where the negotiators can pass themselves off as academics holed up in this remote mansion to write a book.
The initial meetings between the PLO officials and the Israelis are prickly, but they soon begin to make progress, lending support to Larsen’s theory that private, personal, incremental negotiations might succeed where public, impersonal, comprehensive talks have failed. The Israeli professors are eventually joined and then sidelined by Uri Savir (Michael Aronov) Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and Joel Singer (Joseph Siravo), a Washington, D.C., attorney with ties to the Israeli government. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin (Adam Dannheiser) and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres (Oreskes) also make periodic appearances.
Oslo, which runs two hours and 55 minutes with two intermissions, has a cast of 14 actors who play 21 roles. Though it unfolds mostly in the salon of the Borregaard Manor where the participants gather after negotiating sessions, which take place behind closed doors, for drinks, snacks, and banter, Oslo also ranges from Middle Eastern sites like Tel Aviv and Tunis (Arafat’s home base at the time), to European cities, to, finally, Washington, D.C. The play covers April 1992 to September ’93—a year and five months—with a coda that extends 11 years into the future after the historic White House signing.
I found Oslo less theatrically exciting than the Shakespeare’s Globe production of The Merchant of Venice I saw two nights later (see my ROT report on 18 August), also three hours long, though Diana really liked it. It’s all talk, which for three hours is enervating enough, but there’s a lot of narration delivered by Ehle’s Mona Juul—the oral equivalent of Brechtian labels: short (sometimes no more than a few words) identifications of new characters (there are a lot—requiring a good deal of double- and even triple-casting) or filling a gap in time. Furthermore, the negotiations themselves take place off stage, so we get after-action reports and down-time interaction. The final scene is at the White House that momentous September day (though it’s “back stage”), but the play ends with the characters doing that familiar epilogue where they stand in formation and tell us what happened to everyone after the signing. I find all that anti-theatrical. Furthermore, the back-story of the accords isn’t a) all that surprising or b) all that exciting. (I’m a foreign-service brat, so the intricacies of diplomacy aren’t a revelation to me. I grew up around it. I was also an intelligence officer in the army, so the mechanisms of secrecy are familiar to me as well: accommodation addresses, cover identities and code names, vehicles registered in false names, covert telecommunications.)
The “big” dramatic hook is that it all had to take place in secret and off the official level—but that’s hardly much of a playable action and after about an hour, it stops being much of a discernible focus on stage; we forget about it until Rogers sees fit to remind us with a line or, once or twice, a potential breach of the secrecy. (It does make clear why diplomacy can’t always be conducted transparently and why communications shouldn’t always be made public—take note, WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden!)
The performances are fine, and one or two of the actors actually manages to channel a recognizable world figure (Peres, Kissinger), but since most of the characters, while real people, aren’t famous, the cast is free to create figures in a play rather than political celebrities on TV. The big problem for me was that even good acting can’t enliven what’s basically a Weltpolitik role-play. Diana kept insisting that Oslo ought to be televised so that everyone, especially young people, can see what happened in this backstage story of history.
Actually, a TV production might make Oslo more interesting to watch. (Now that it’s going to Broadway, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it on HBO or Showtime. Both Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill and All the Way were televised after Broadway runs recently.) The camera can make the illusion of action where there is none and close-ups, wide-shots, and two-shots can vary the visuals in ways that stage pictures can’t. It also might make the play shorter, since the production almost became a play about moving furniture! The cast has to rearrange the set pieces—furniture on casters—between every one of the 53 scenes. (The minimalist scenic design is by Michael Yeargan and the props are supervised by Faye Armon-Troncoso.) Without that, with which a TV version would dispense, the three hours would probably be closer to 2½! And all those narrative inserts and the concluding speeches would probably be replaced by screen titles and a crawl at the end. Down to 2¼ hours maybe.
Sher handles the sweeping range of the play and the large cast very well, guiding each of the actors into distinctive characterizations for their often multiple roles. (Ben Furey, by the way, was the dialect coach who helped the cast master accents from Norwegian to Arabic to Hebrew—and German for Michael Aronov as Uri Savir when he impersonates Henry Kissinger as well as a couple of out-of-place tourists.) I wish he and Rogers had come up with a way to stage Oslo without the narration and the constantly-moving furniture, but given that distraction, he kept the three-hour, darkly comic drama flowing, with enough humor and passion to add variety and emotional fluctuations to the performance to allay the potential impression that Oslo’s just a static reenactment of history.
Yeargan, a multiple-Drama Desk- (The Light in the Piazza, 2005; Awake and Sing!, 2006; South Pacific, 2008) and -Tony-winning (The Light in the Piazza, 2005; South Pacific, 2008) vet, created a fragmentary, representation of the Borregaard salon (based on photos taken by Rogers on a visit to the negotiation site) with a single, soothingly neutral, bluish-gray wall, symbolic of the atmosphere intended to keep the parties calm and focused, with a single, prominent, somewhat-ornate door—the visual symbol of the play’s focus—up center on the Newhouse’s thrust stage. Otherwise, the space is fairly barren aside from Armon-Troncoso’s props, giving the impression of a dreamscape, slightly surreal. (The single set stands in for all the locations of the play, with projections, by 59 Productions, for distant locales and news events that are recounted in Mona Juul’s narration.) Donald Holder’s lighting, which subtly conveys the passing of time, and Peter John Still’s sound add to the vaguely disembodied reality of the setting.
Once again, the cast here is an excellent example of an ensemble. Even though Rød-Larsen and Juul are the threads that stitch the group together by their near-constant stage presence, particularly Mays’s Rød-Larsen, and the play couldn’t happen (any more than could the Oslo Channel itself) were it not for the Norwegian duo, they are only the first and second among equals when it comes to the performance. Nonetheless, as I asserted earlier, the actors each carve out a well-defined individual character—or characters, in many instances. Mays’s Rød-Larsen is a dynamic, charming, raconteur who revels in managing the near-chaos—a perfect MC for the mercurial negotiations. (It should be noted that Mays, a 2004 Tony recipient for I Am My Own Wife, was the object of some astonished praise in my report on A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, posted on ROT on 16 October 2014.) As his wife, Mona Juul, Ehle is an elegant, controlled calming influence, a woman who knows how to soothe the savage breast (of which there are quite a few here), so to speak. She has a strong will—her husband’s complement—but also a sharp wit, which, as one of only two woman in the manor, she needs and is unshy at displaying. (Ehle is also a Tony-winner, one for The Real Thing in 2000, and—wait for it!—three for The Coast of Utopia in 2007, one for each part! That has to be some kind of record.)
Oreskes’s Yair Hirschfeld, the senior Israeli professor, is a bit shy and a bit out of his depth, but earnest and passionate about his responsibility and willing to take a risk to make it work. (His Shimon Peres is a spot-on impersonation.) As Hirschfeld’s junior colleague, Ron Pundak, Jenkins is more social than his comrade, livelier, perhaps even a little too much so. Azizi is a formidable and committed politician as the chief Palestinian negoiator, Ahmed Qurie, a man who believes he’s important—he has Arafat’s ear—and isn’t afraid to show it. He has strong feelings about his role in history, but he’s also a consummate actor and can play a role when it serves him. He’s a practical man, not an intellectual, and something of a hedonist—and a would-be ladies’ man. Qurie’s partner, Hassan Asfour, is a colder, less flexible figure in Kashani’s hands than his senior negotiator, and he’s an unreconstructed, slogan-spouting, Patrice Lumumba University-educated Marxist. Angry and unforgiving, Kashani’s Asfour is a dour and stiff-backed character.
Of the less-central figures, Smith’s Norwegian Foreign Minister, Johan Jorgen Holst; Aronov’s Uri Savir, Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry; Adam Dannheisser’s Yossi Beilin, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister; and Joseph Siravo’s Israeli lawyer, Joel Singer, also stood out for strong characterizations. And I must take special note of the work of Henny Russell as Toril Grandal, the housekeeper and cook at Borregaard Manor, who, with her husband Finn (played, between appearances as Holst, by Smith), seemed to keep the place up and running and all the temporary inhabitants (relatively) happy despite the tension and weighty responsibilities.
The press coverage for Oslo, still an Off-Broadway production until its change in venue next spring, was extensive. Aside from several features and interviews in both the print and on-line media (and the entire summer issue of the Lincoln Center Theater Review), the website Show-Score surveyed 29 reviews. (I use my own list, admittedly with considerable overlap, so the tally is different.) Reporting that Oslo received 100% positive notices (that’s right: not a single negative or even mixed review!), Show-Score posted an average rating for the consensus of 86. (This reception might in part explain the move to Broadway. As late as a month before this posting, there were no plans for that transfer, according to the show’s press representative.)
The U.S. edition of the Financial Times’ Max McGuinness asserted that Rogers’s “engaging new play” may be the only thing remaining of the Oslo Peace Process; “It all seems very long ago,” he said. Though “we know it is all destined to end in failure,” noted McGuinness, “[t]he play itself succeeds in drawing us into the minutiae of now dimly remembered diplomatic brawling.” He warned, however, “It’s a dramatically conventional and occasionally heavy-handed work lacking the intellectual zing” of similarly-themed work by other writers, “[b]ut the many frustrations and occasional triumphs of the year-long negotiations are scrupulously conveyed.” Sher’s directing, “in keeping with the gravity of the subject,” is “by-the-book.” McGuinness expressed particular praise for the Joel Singer of Joseph Siravo and Mays’s Rød-Larsen.
In the New York Times, Ben Brantley, dubbing Oslo “absorbing drama,” characterized the play as “long and dense enough to make you wonder if you should have packed an overnight bag.” The Timesman added, however, “Yet what Mr. Rogers and the director, Bartlett Sher, have created is a streamlined time machine, comfortably appointed enough to forestall jet lag.” Further, “‘Oslo’ affectingly elicits the all-too-human factor” and “it’s a vivid, thoughtful and astonishingly lucid account” in which Rogers doesn’t take sides. “Only occasionally does the script resort to the telegraphic shorthand of cute, defining quirks,” reported Brantley, and he praised the entire cast of negotiators and disputants, with special notice for Mays and, most enthusiastically, Ehle. The result of the cast and creative team’s efforts, Brantley declared, is “the stuff of crackling theater.”
Matt Windman of am New York characterized Oslo as a “long-winded . . . but smart, occasionally humorous and objectively-observed ensemble drama” with “excellent” performances and “spare,” “seamless,” “video-enhanced staging.” The amNY reviewer concluded, “The play may be dense and choppy, but a more narrow and delicate treatment probably could not have captured the scale and intensity of the political process.” Newsday’s Linda Winer, whose “Bottom Line” was “Unknown Middle-East history, grippingly told,” dubbed the play an “ambitious three-hour, fact-based fiction” that’s “lovingly, painstakingly staged” and which will “probably” fascinate you. The play’s “pretty talky,” warned Winer, but added that “Rogers, Sher and their generous, marvelous cast do much to lighten the agonizing back-and-forth . . . with convivial unlikely scenes of eating, joking and drinking among fierce adversaries.” Although Oslo has a “cinematic quality,” the Newsday reviewer found that it “feels naturally theatrical” in Yeargan’s “spare” set.
Christopher Kelly of the Newark Star-Ledger and NJ.com pronounced that the “story of process, patience and the painstaking art of negotiation . . . manages a seemingly impossible feat: It transforms three hours of talk about the Oslo Accords into gripping and urgent entertainment.” Still, “never once does any of [Oslo] feel confusing or bloated” as the production is “[c]risply directed” by Sher. Rogers makes [the] process thrilling to witness”—and “[f]unny, too.” Kelly lauds the “exceptional” cast, “with particular props to Mays and Ehle.” Bergen County, New Jersey, Record reviewer Robert Feldberg warned on NorthJersey.com that Oslo is “overlong” but “well-acted” and “surprisingly lively and involving.” Feldberg also reported that Rogers “injects crowd-pleasing humor and sentimentality, but in reasonable doses.” As the Record reviewer noted, even after the historic signing at the White House, “peace didn’t follow,” so Oslo “concludes with a glass-half-full sentiment.”
Miriam Felton-Dansky dubbed Oslo a “good-hearted, occasionally frustrating, three-hour epic” in the Village Voice, “at heart, a friendship saga.” Although Felton-Dansky felt that “the tension slowly mounts” over the course of the play, in the end, she found, “Theatrically, Oslo falls somewhat flat” because “Rogers supplements his dialogue with repetitive direct-address narration, and between scenes, projected newsreel footage.” The Voice reviewer continued, “Most disappointingly, Oslo lends little depth to the Norwegian diplomats themselves.” “Still,” she concluded, “Oslo contains a form of thoughtful hope that is welcome” in today’s world.
In the New Yorker, Hilton Als, calling Oslo a “good, if overlong, piece of journalism-theatre—you know, a play that’s been ‘ripped from the headlines’ or the history books, presumably to add heat and immediacy to the proceedings,” reported that “it has moments of strangeness that suggest what might have been had the playwright, J. T. Rogers, and his director, Bartlett Sher, been more interested in taking risks.” During one early scene, Als got the notion that “Rogers and Sher might be on their way to making something that was more reflective of the times than the ‘truth,’ a dissonant opera of talk and movement, lies and evasions and beliefs: the stuff of politics.” But, the New Yorker review-writer realized, though Rogers “mixes fact and fiction . . ., he uses reality not to buoy his imagination but to shore up a ‘Family of Man’-type plea to end war and hate.” Als sang the praises of Mays and Ehle, “both of whom are killer in their roles,” but concluded, “Sher and Rogers drive home ‘Oslo’ ’s ultimately banal point: that tolerance sometimes, just sometimes, begins with the nicest people.”
Jesse Green opened his New York magazine review with a surprising statement: “It’s not often I think a three-hour play could profitably be longer, but J. T. Rogers’s gripping, big-boned Oslo . . . needs all the meat and muscle it can pack on its frame.” Green “detected the hallmarks of overhasty surgery on the play; what were once longer scenes, perhaps, are now in effect vestigial tails or title cards.” And though they started as central figures, “Juul and Larsen are too frequently reduced to interstitial narrators” even as Sher keeps them “hovering around the edge of the action.” Sher’s staging is “remarkably swift and entertaining,” however, and the “gallery of types makes for exciting scene work” by the “exacting actors.” Though their roles are “a bit underwritten,” Mays and Ehle “manage to make something solid out of dialogue that is sometimes a hilarious kaleidoscope of evasive diplomatic phrases.”
Marilyn Stasio of Variety declared Oslo “unequivocally fascinating” and a “compelling drama” presented by LCT in a “striking production” featuring a “flawlessly cast ensemble.” Describing “Rogers’ . . . clever dialogue” as “witty,” delivering the facts “with intelligence and humor by this dream of a cast,” Stasio affirmed, “It’s the petty stuff . . . that makes these intimidating characters so human. And so funny.” She asserted that the play’s three acts, “constructed very much as a suspense drama,” “fly by like hours spent at the circus.” Sher makes the LCT production, with “impeccable casting of these superbly drawn characters,” “compulsively watchable” and Stasio declared in her final assessment, “This is what we call drama, and it’s what we live for. So, go, already—live!” Adam Feldman wrote in Time Out New York that Oslo is “informative and even-handed” and that despite its length, Sher’s “seamless cast of 14 keeps it from seeming dry, even when Rogers’s writing . . . slips into overt exposition.”
Recognizing, “The best historical plays are the ones that send you into a Google spiral immediately following the curtain call” because they make you want to know more, Entertainment Weekly’s Melissa Rose Bernardo continued, “You’ll find your curiosity similarly piqued after J. T. Rogers’ intense, intellectual Oslo.” Calling the play a “deep dive,” Bernardo acknowledged, “Rogers has a bit of a gift for transforming contentious, complex historical subjects into digestible, but not dumbed-down, entertainment,” which is, despite its running time, “by no means a slog.” The EW reviewer further reported, “There’s even plenty of profane humor packed in” and “enough backstory . . . to fill in the necessary blanks.”
In the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney’s “Bottom Line” was “A riveting humanized history lesson.” He described Oslo as a “terrific new political thriller” in a “very fine production, directed with unerringly precise attention to detail.” But while Sher emphasizes the play’s “mechanics as a theatrical presentation . . . from the start, they enhance rather than impede our involvement in a fascinating true story.” In Rooney’s opinion, it’s a play that’s “alive with tension, intrigue, humor, bristling intelligence and emotional peaks that are subdued yet intensely moving, which concludes unexpectedly on a poignant note of hope.” The HR reviewer reported that “Rogers’ drama artfully locates the human story in a delicate account of political diplomacy. This is a richly insightful play about culturally diverse people.” Rooney expanded that “without dumbing anything down, Rogers, Sher and their faultless cast deliver maximum clarity as well as urgency, drawing out the distinct personalities with great nuance and a considerable amount of wit.” Greatly praising the acting ensemble, the HR writer noted that “it’s virtually impossible to single out any one performance, since the ensemble works with an uncanny combination of cohesion, sensitivity and efficiency.”
Among the cyber reviews, Elyse Sommer of CurtainUp received a Show-Score rating of 100, the highest for this show and the only max score I’ve seen since starting to use the site. Sommer labeled Oslo “a fact-based but highly original drama that’s as entertaining and suspenseful as it is informative and thought provoking.” She acknowledged that the play’s “talky and probably could have been trimmed a bit,” but also “staged with dynamic simplicity” so that the “fourteen top drawer actors [were able] to bring twenty-one historic characters to vivid life.” The CU reviewer admitted that she “couldn’t wait for the two intermissions to end and all that very witty talk to continue”; she added that Oslo is “the best play I’ve seen all year” (and, hence, the 100 score for this notice). Sommer characterized the production as “riveting” and “a thriller” with “ever escalating tension.” Jonathan Mandell called the play “fascinating” on New York Theater and singled out Anthony Azizi’s Ahmed Qurie and Daniel Oreskes’s economics professor Yair Hirschfeld and Shimon Peres as “stand-outs.” In his final analysis, the NYT reviewer judged that Oslo “gives us not only a lucid refresher course on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and provides us entertainment that is both surprisingly funny and suspenseful.”
On Broadway World, Michael Dale characterized Oslo as “fascinating, entertaining and realistically funny drama” in a “swift and tense production” which “never sags” over its three-hour length. “The play is abundantly talky,” observed Dale, “but it’s the kind of crisp, clever talk that continually stimulates.” Tulis McCall of New York Theatre Guide declared that Oslo “is the kind of brilliant production that will leave you a teensie bit worse off than it found you. It will leave you a bit rattled. It will leave you with new skin and and refined eyesight. You will look at political events . . . with a more critical eye. When one hand is waving to you, you will wonder what the other hand is doing.” McCall blamed this condition on “three very extraordinary hours listening to a team of excellent actors spin the tale of the funny thing that happened on the way to the Oslo Accord.” With an “extraordinary cast,” the “verbal and incident packed obstacle course” of the play becomes “not only comprehendible, [but] urgent and arresting. We not only understand, we feel,” continued McCall. The on-line reviewer concluded, “Oslo will bring you back around to where you do not want to be: thinking of these people as your family.”
“I thoroughly enjoyed this play,” declared Michele Willens on Theatre Reviews Limited, after listing all the drawbacks and apparent problems the play presented (its length, its talkiness, and so on). “‘Oslo’ is pretty much what it sounds like,” reported Willens: “a lot of heady conversation and human fireworks. But there is also a good deal of humor.” The script is made up of “excellent and timely dialogue” and “the acting is . . . superb”—with special mention for Mays, Ehle, and Aronov. The production, said Willens, is “lovely” and Sher’s staging “keeps things moving with little distraction,” though she added, “Some of the narration along the way could probably be excised, but it is handled with speed and precision.” Willens ended by warning that “this is obviously not a play for everyone,” but noted that “it is serving a purpose in at least humanizing the people behind all that passion.” On NY Theatre Guide (different from the earlier-cited New York Theatre Guide), Elizabeth Glasure felt that Oslo “was riveting; it was wonderfully impossible to relax from curtain to close.” Glasure thanked Sher “for for the multitude of seamless transitions” and asserted that he “manages to evade any single monotonous moment.” The cast, from which Glasure singled out Mays, Ehle, and Azzizi, “are simple and direct.” In conclusion, the cyber reviewer declared, “Oslo is a must-see, a truly important and beautifully poignant political drama that stirs a deep inner justice.”
“The art of writing may be inherently undramatic,” observed Talkin’ Broadway’s Matthew Murray, “but that doesn’t mean it contains no possibility of vitality.” Murray makes a comparison to the 1969 musical 1776, another successful play about politicians creating a historic document, to demonstrate that the process can be “riveting, rewarding entertainment.” The playwright, said Murray, “mines every occurrence, no matter how minor, for new forms of tension and release,” though the director “has provided a staging that is perhaps drier than ideal, imparting a stiff atmosphere.” Nonetheless, Sher focuses “on the matters at hand, and keeps things thoroughly followable and digestible,” with help from the “dynamite cast.” Because of the “catastrophic problem” of the ultimate failure of the peace overtures between the parties, however, Murray pronounced Oslo “ultimately unsatisfying.” Anyone who has even the remotest familiarity with the history of the Middle East will see this, Murray contended, and be disappointed with the play’s conclusion. “[I]t’s the playwriting equivalent of throwing up one’s hands,” asserted Murray. Carol Rocamora of Theater Pizzazz labeled Oslo “a riveting political play” whose “scope is ambitious.” The production, said Rocamora, is “[s]eamlessly directed” and the “ensemble offers superb performances,” with special praise for Mays, Ehle, Aronov, and Kashani.
On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart called Oslo an “excellent new play,” and then asked, “Who would have thought that bilateral diplomacy could be this thrilling?” A “massively complicated tale,” its “pace and scale . . . gives [sic] one a physical sense of just how exhausting and tenuous these negotiations really were.” The TM review-writer felt that Sher’s production and Rogers’s text “draw us into the world of international diplomacy,” but affirmed that it’s “the performances that hold us rapt,” giving special mention to Mays and Ehle. Stewart summed up by stating that “Rogers has crafted an invaluable and incredibly watchable drama.” Steven Suskin of Huffington Post, calling Oslo “gripping, provocative, wrenching, funny and altogether riveting,” reported that “you’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat.” Though it’s a three-hour play—which “flies by far quicker than some eighty-minute one-acts”—of men talking “across a table,” Suskin found that “it turns out to be a wildly suspenseful and sometimes dangerous ride.” The HP reviewer asserted, “Credit rests equally with” Sher and a cast that’s “remarkable on just about all sides.” Once again, the review-writer singled out Mays and Ehle, and continued, “They are surrounded by a marvelous ensemble.” In the dog days of summer, Suskin suggested, “A true-life, historical, intellectual thriller about government and international politics might not sound like what you are looking for, but Rogers, Sher and LCT have given us the real thing.” At the end, he added, “Inquiring playgoers, be apprised.”
The Associated Press’s Jennifer Farrar characterized Oslo as “a riveting political thriller with a personal approach” that “features tense, behind-the-scenes dialogue.” Farrar continued, “Such is the skill of the production . . . that we feel caught up in real negotiations of the so-called Oslo Accord” during which “[d]arkly humorous comments permeate the tense conversations.” The play is composed of “swiftly-paced scenes” that are “deftly” performed by a “top-notch ensemble.” The AP reviewer stated in the end, “The talents of cast and crew in ‘Oslo’ make a complex historical event feel understandable, intimate and profoundly affecting.” On WNBC-TV (New York’s Channel 4), Robert Kahn, dubbing the play a “new political thriller,” wondered, since we know now that the Oslo Accords failed to bring peace, “Is there still drama, then, to be mined from a story about the agreement’s genesis?” His conclusion: “The answer, assuredly, is yes.” Sometimes the script “is more playful than its subject matter might suggest,” Kahn thought, but he found, the “writing and staging are literal-minded.” Lending the story “heft” is Rogers’s studied neutrality.
Because of the subject matter, I thought it would be interesting to hear from the press of some of the parties involved in the play’s history: Norwegians, Jews, and Israelis (I didn’t find a Palestinian comment on the play). In the Norwegian American, Arlene and Thor A. Larsen (relation to Terje Rød-Larsen unknown), posited that “Rogers has an interesting way of drawing the audience into these negotiations so that even though we are well aware how history played out in the Middle East, we still feel the same hope and possibility for peace as the main facilitators,” Rød-Larsen and Juul. “Anyone with a sense of justice, especially if they are Norwegian,” continued the columnists, “cannot help feeling a bit disappointed and regretful that at the actual signing of the Accord, Mona and Terje were relegated to looking on from the back of the room receiving no special accolades or recognition of any kind.” The NA writers found, “The playwright and the director make sure you do NOT want to leave your seat, even for a moment, as you become totally engaged with the drama,” concluding that Oslo is a “must-see for anyone who appreciates historical drama, the Middle East, and especially those who want to understand the role Norwegians played in realizing the first of the Oslo Accords.”
Anna Katsnelson, in the Forward (formerly the Jewish Daily Forward), cites a “famous” psychological study that states: “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.” Oslo, posited Katsnelson, “re-creates something like a geopolitical test case for this theory.” She determined that the play “will hold the attention of those with an existing interest in the history of the Middle East peace process and the challenges” that are inherent in it. Oslo “also comes replete with Arafat and Kissinger jokes. But it struggles to convey larger moral implications.” Katsnelson felt, “No inherent criticism of the Accords is permitted, and with this absolute certainty comes a lack of nuance.” The Forward reviewer thought, “A play about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a happy ending may seem hard to believe, and it does gloss over some important facts,” such as the failure to deal with the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In conclusion, Katsnelson asserted, “‘Oslo,’ [u]nfortunately, lacks . . . historic weight and immediacy.”
Adi Eshman opened her column on Oslo in the Jewish Journal by stating, “If you want to see the Middle East that could have been—and, with any hope, could still be,” you should see Rogers’s play. With a “cast of talented performers,” director Sher begins the first act “in fog”; “actors enter even before the house lights go down. A cloak of secrecy swallows these players, and we, the audience, must focus to discover their motivations.” Eshman explained, “What animates [the] dialogue—indeed, the whole play—is the idea of seeing one’s opponent for the first time.” In her final analysis, the JJ writer contended, “Whatever the future may hold, Rogers’ must-see play affirms the bravery of men who fought to see their enemies as partners.” In Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily paper, Yael Friedman focused largely on the history both of the Oslo Channel negotiations and of the creation of Rogers’s script, but she acknowledged, “Few playwrights were perhaps more perfectly poised to conceive the dramatic contours of a story like” that of the Oslo meetings because Rogers is adept at “portraying personal dramas cast amid larger political ones.” She also affirmed that this history was “a natural fit for the stage,” though the distinction between Rogers’s play and other recent history plays (Friedman cited the Lyndon Johnson bio-drama All the Way) is that Oslo “does not rely on the outsized personalities of the big, familiar, players”; instead it focuses “on those carrying the actual burden and the glory of changing history.” These instrumental figures “may have worked, and to some extent may have remained, in relative obscurity but they are now receiving their due.”
In surveying the press for this production, I noticed that most of the reviews were pretty long, but I found that most spent the bulk of their length on the history of the Oslo Accords and the plot of Oslo. Remarkably little space was given to a discussion of the dramatic or theatrical aspects of the play despite the laudatory quality of the overall assessments. I couldn’t help forming the sense that the reviewers were influenced in their critical opinions by the historic (and historiographic) nature of the subject, dismissing any dramaturgical deficiencies (such as the play’s enormous length, three-act structure, talkiness, and the constant narration) out of a sense of duty: the play is “important” so it must be good. If my assessment is accurate, it may account for the 100% positive rating Oslo received on Show-Score. As much as my companion, Diana, liked Oslo—she seems to have a predilection for talk plays: she liked David Ives’s New Jerusalem and I didn’t (see my report on ROT on 20 April 2014)—I found much of it enervating and, as I already wrote, undramatic and anti-theatrical. Too many of the review-writers I read swept all that aside for me to believe something wasn’t operating sub rosa.