The torture of diplomacy: Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays fight for progress in ‘Oslo.’
T. Charles Erickson
Bartlett Sher’s production of J.T. Rogers’s powerful and haunting Oslo features a constantly recurring image: a brightly lit open doorway at the back of an otherwise darkened stage. The doorway looks even more reassuringly bright on the spacious Vivian Beaumont stage, to which Oslo has been moved after its enthusiastic reception last summer in the smaller Newhouse Theater downstairs. We never see the room that light brightens, but we can still be grateful for it: Oslo deals with peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, a subject on which signs of reassuring light were rare in 1993, when Rogers’s play takes place, and seem even rarer today. The glow of that distant light, from that room we never enter, embodies the distant hope of peace in a region ruled by strife. Oslo‘s story — how improbable back-channel talks in Norway burgeoned into the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Authority — reveals that light can sometimes shine out, albeit transiently, in our pitch-dark world.
The pathway toward that light was provided by Terje Rød-Larsen (Jefferson Mays), a Norwegian sociologist who ran an Oslo think tank, the Fafo Institute for Applied Social Science, and whose wife, Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle), was on the staff of Norway’s Foreign Ministry. One of Larsen’s subordinates, Marianne Heiberg (Henny Russell), happened to be married to Juul’s boss, the incoming foreign minister, Johan Jorgen Holst (played with fierce incisiveness by T. Ryder Smith). The comedy that mercifully lightens Oslo‘s grim burden often stems from the collision of these solid, slightly stolid Norwegians and their northern climate with the more demonstrative sensibilities of the Israelis and Palestinians they encounter.
Larsen’s institute turned out to be an ideal place for the two sides to talk frankly to each other. For one thing, it wasn’t governmental: Norway’s Foreign Ministry felt no obligation to inform its allies that some unaccredited Israelis and Palestinians were sitting down together at a social-science institute. And they had, at the start, to be unaccredited: Under then-current Israeli law, any government official who even talked to a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization was committing a crime. Rogers’s script traces, with carefully heightening tension, how the clandestine, seemingly futile talks acquire stature as the PLO’s finance minister, Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi), and his associate, Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani) — the latter a fire-breathing Communist — meet first with two seemingly bumbling Israeli economics professors (Daniel Jenkins and Daniel Oreskes), then with Uri Savir, general manager of Israel’s foreign ministry, an effusive figure rendered with hilarious flamboyance by Michael Aronov.
Savir’s presence gives the talks the official stamp for which the PLO has been pressing. In a less expectable development, he and Qurie forge an unlikely friendship. (It turns out both men have daughters named Maya.) Watching while stern, somber Qurie and skittery, gesticulative Savir seek and find common ground is Oslo‘s most heartening aspect. The heartbeat nearly dies with the arrival of Joel Singer (Jeff Still, replacing an ailing Joseph Siravo) — a tough-minded lawyer under orders from Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to scrutinize and reword every clause in the draft agreement. Tempers run high and contentions grow bitter; at its most fraught moments, Oslo can seem like a shouting quartet — two Palestinians and two Israelis vociferating in irate counterpoint.
But under the vociferation, something meaningful is being built. By the end, when the agreement has so grown in importance that the two heads of state, Rabin and Yasser Arafat (neither seen onstage), are signing it in public, we can believe, fleetingly, that the diplomatic process has value and meaning. It does not solve the problems; in some respects, it barely even addresses them. Violence continues — some of it, the epilogue reminds us, visited on those who created the accords by people supposedly on their own side. Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli extremist; one of the Palestinian delegates was beaten nearly to death in a hallway in Gaza. And the Norwegians, to whom Rogers gives the last word, are left wondering how much good they actually accomplished.
And we wonder with them, which is Oslo‘s final validation as theater. Rogers has tidily stitched the history that preceded the negotiations into the text; the Middle East tensions that surround them come to life in vivid projections (by 59 Productions) on the back wall of Michael Yeargan’s largely bare setting. Sher achieves a gallery of first-rate performances, with Mays and Ehle, caught in the middle, gulping in anguish or swallowing their pride as the two opposing teams veer from hostile harshness to cheerful camaraderie and back again. Diplomacy, Oslo makes clear, is a tortuous process. But what world could we live in without it? A refusal to see any truth in the other side’s point of view leads only to doomsday; diplomacy leads, with excruciating slowness, to that doorway from which emerges a hopeful gleam of light.
Diplomacy in personal relations, as practiced by Garry Essendine (Kevin Kline), the hero of Noël Coward’s durable 1942 comedy, Present Laughter, can also lead to pure silliness. In the London theater, Garry is a reigning superstar; everyone in the fawning coterie around him wants a piece of his time, his affection, or at least his box office receipts. Only his fond yet disillusioned ex-wife (Kate Burton) and his formidable, staunchly loyal secretary (Kristine Nielsen) know Garry’s epically tremulous ego well enough to let it alone. Others insist on poking the creature awake, with deliciously farcical results.
Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s new production (St. James Theatre), the play’s fifth revival since New York first saw it, with Clifton Webb as Garry, in 1946, builds an easygoing comic style that suits the script’s charmingly old-fashioned construction. (Stuelpnagel’s only serious mistake is the very noisy and unsuitably hard jazz played between scenes.) The audience’s laughter presents itself readily and smoothly because the cast doesn’t push for it. Kline displays his total mastery of the vocalized pauses and slight shifts of body language that provoke constant chuckling, while Nielsen’s more acrid mode of comedy provides the big explosive laughs needed to vary the stream of chuckles. Burton, Reg Rogers, and Peter Francis James hit three key supporting roles dead center. Though not the most innovative nor the most spectacularly showy revival of Present Laughter New York has seen, this is the one that, for me, has best caught the play’s lighthearted essence.
Vivian Beaumont Theater
150 West 65th Street
St. James Theatre
246 West 44th Street