OSLO: A head-start on the Best Play of the Season


Seldom has such a complicated play been as entertaining.

There are plenty of laughs in OSLO — certainly more than we find in most dramas that deal with serious political matters.

After all, who’d expect an audience to burst out with belly-laughter early and often while watching The 1993 Oslo Peace Accords take shape?

“Though every character in this play has been named for a real person,” playwright J.T. Rogers writes in the program, “the words they say are mine.” So give him credit for putting plenty of humor in OSLO, which could turn out dryer than a virtually vermouth-less martini.

Political junkies may still be the ideal audience, but political abstainers needn’t fear that they’ll get lost early on and never catch up. Rogers hasn’t written what is commonly known as “the snob-hit.” This is for all the people all the time.

Of course, some will mention that the play has so much humor because there’s so much play: three acts, three hours. No, Rogers gets in the giggles and circumvents boredom much the way Peter Stone did for The Founding Fathers in 1776: he’s humanized his characters to the point where we see their foibles and find they’re quite similar to ours. I won’t spoil the funny lines by quoting them, but will paraphrase Glinda and tell even most tired of businessmen “You must learn them for yourself.”

Although the play deals with a Norwegian — diplomat Terje Rød-Larsen – who wants peace between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, a quotation from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu comes to mind: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So Rød-Larsen is hoping for some progress, any progress while aware that “we steer our ship to unchartered shores.”

One roadblock occurs in the play’s first seconds. Rød-Larsen’s boss, Minister of Defense Johan Jorgen Holst, is dead-set against his employee’s meddling in what is technically none of his business. But Rød-Larsen says “I will facilitate and facilitate only” before adding, “If Leningrad can revert to St. Petersburg, anything can happen.”

He’s also buoyed by his wife Mona Juul. “We are trusted by both sides,” says the woman who will become an unsung hero in the Accords. (This is definitely a supporting role in the literal sense; everything Mona does is in support, and Jennifer Ehle excels in Knowing Her Place and Mona’s as well.)

Right off, however, Palestinian Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie tersely admits “I have never met an Israeli face-to-face.” No wonder they start with talk about the weather.

That can only last so long, however. When the Israeli Director General of the Foreign Ministry Uri Savir says that he hasn’t been home in a while, the hot-headed Qurie explodes with “I haven’t been home since 1967!” – referring to the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War.

“Divide and conquer” is a millennia-old tactic, but Rød-Larsen gives it new meaning. He’ll make the conference room the place for all-business and the room immediately outside it as the place for no business. “Out here we will share our meals and tell of our families,” says Rød-Larsen. All of them must make nice when they break for tea, even if they had no sympathy for what was just said inside.

So during these time-outs we hear “A rabbi and a Buddhist priest are on an airplane” leading to a good punchline, even if you have heard it over the decades. And after such kidding around and laughing, a moment later they’re at each other’s eyes, ears, nose and throat.
The so-called neutral zone is violated, although they find enough of a common bond before the first act ends to warrant an Act Two – and Three.

The Battle for Jerusalem is here just a war of words, but they’re pretty explosive ones. The expletives are not deleted, for Rogers wants to remind us that strong people have been known to use strong language. In the midst of the strife often comes a remark that could be judged as thought-provokingly philosophical or utter rationalization: “What is a lie but a dream that could come true?”

We also experience what the best dramas offer us: two sides are at great odds, but each constituent has a convincing argument that makes us say “Yeah, he’s right, too.”

How could the play not be long, given that for weeks the negotiators were in each session for approximately seven hours? Rogers has been forced to summarize nine months in one scene, but does it effectively. At first OSLO seems to have Attention Deficit Disorder for it jumps all over the place. Occasionally, a character will turn to us and narrate. (“Each side wanted to find a way to find a way,” says Mona.)
Eventually it does settle down into a more naturalistic approach. Wait for it — for it’s worth waiting for.

Jefferson Mays is becoming one of our Most Valuable Players with his ability to segue from plays (a Tony-winner for I AM MY OWN WIFE) to musicals (a Tony-nominee for A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO MURDER). As Rød-Larsen, he does magnificent justice to a man caught between tons of rock-ribbed land and a rock-hard bunch of negotiators.

Anthony Azizi as Qurie would seem to be the standout, but Bartlett Sher has directed in such a skillful way that off-Broadway award nominators will be using the term “Best Ensemble” at their meetings.

And the 2016-2017 Tony awards? Of course OSLO would have to move at least upstairs to the Vivian Beaumont or down the street to a genuine Broadway house. And there are always producers who will raise the necessary money to move a prestige play.

Although the 299-seat Newhouse is pretty much (and understandably) sold out for the rest of the run, some producers will worry that that there aren’t more patrons per performance who’d embrace the adventurous OSLO, no matter how amusing it can be. Even the smallest available Broadway theater has more than twice that number of seats.

Still, plenty of producers don’t mind losing all their investors’ money as long as they can tromp onto the stage on a Sunday in June, bask in the glory and buy a Tony that is available to minor producers if they write a check for $2,500. So don’t be surprised if OSLO soon sees lights as bright as the Aurora Borealis on Broadway.

And that’s no joke.