Off-Broadway Review: “Oslo” Enacts History on Stage at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater

Off-Broadway Review: “Oslo” History on Stage at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (Through Sunday August 28, 2016)
Written by J.T. Rogers
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Reviewed by Michele Willens
Theatre Reviews Limited

If I told you—and I will —the components of the new show at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, my guess is you might not run out to see it. It is three hours long. There are two intermissions. There is no music and no dancing. There are no stars. It’s basically twelve people talking about peace in the Mideast.

And you know what? I thoroughly enjoyed this play.

“Oslo,” written by J.T. Rogers, tells the rather amazing backstory of the accords signed in 1993 by Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. Remember the famous handshake in the Rose Garden with a grinning President Clinton between the two lifelong enemies? This play ends there– well, almost. But the three acts are comprised of the machinations that got them there. Did you hear the one about the academic married Norwegian couple who came up with the idea that peace between the Palestinians and Israelis could be brokered if the big guns just got out of the way?

They started with a few intellectuals and lower level folks on each side, hid the negotiations until they were mysteriously leaked, and eventually, (once the hopeful results began emerging) higher-ups were brought in to replace the originals. Not always a happy transition, by the way. Playwright Rogers calls his play “the hidden history behind the public one.”

“Oslo” is pretty much what it sounds like: a lot of heady conversation and human fireworks. But there is also a good deal of humor. And, of course, history. Not only about the finite period during which the play takes place, but that which has kept these factions so far apart and steeped in acrimony. J.T. Rogers has written excellent and timely dialogue, which largely manages to sound like actual dialogue, albeit with the occasional dose of speechifying. (“What is a throne but a stool covered in velvet”? “Once you unleash the personal, the furies come out.” “Desperation is our ally.” “Only a bumbling amateur lies.” “Sometimes we are the pigeons, sometimes we are the statue.”)

Throughout the three hours, we watch perennial enemies come together over jokes, impressions, shared infatuation with the delicacies of a private chef, (“We are fast approaching the hour of the waffles!”) and disgust with the consistently gray weather outside. (It’s a true tragedy we were approached by the Norwegians and not the Californians.”)

There are twelve actors who move on and off the stage in relatively brief scenes, usually carrying their own props. (Rarely more than a table and chair) At first you might think you will need a scorecard to remember exactly who are the Norwegians, the Israelis, and the Palestinians. (Not for lack of help. As each new character enters, they are quickly introduced to us.) But the acting is so superb that eventually you do get to know everyone. Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle are probably the names most familiar to theatregoers. They portray the couple that got this whole process rolling. Michael Aranov has perhaps the showiest role as the higher up Israeli who comes in midway. He is hilarious and unpredictable and ultimately powerful, bringing much needed energy to the theatrical proceedings just when things start to sag a bit.

This is a lovely production, directed by the prolific Bartlett Sher. (His “King and I” just closed at the largest stage in Lincoln Center, and he directed the current Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.”) In “Oslo,” he keeps things moving with little distraction, though he occasionally uses projections to remind us of the endless destruction and carnage the two sides have inflicted on each other.

Let’s face it…it is pretty amazing history. “This flies in the face of 40 years of Israeli policy,” notes one of the participants in the secret negotiations, during which each side spews anger and mistrust. (“You killed our athletes in Munich.” “You murdered our schoolchildren on buses.” “When you recognize the PLO, we will recognize your legitimacy.” “This is not land to give, this is land to give back.”) If you are locked into your political beliefs, “Oslo” likely won’t change your mind, but it is serving a purpose in at least humanizing the people behind all that passion.

There will be some who may not like the ending of the play, in which all the characters come on stage and report on where they are, or were, all these years later. Finally, Jefferson Mays holds the stage alone, as he does in the beginning, addressing the audience in a way I am not sure is entirely necessary. Some of the narration along the way could probably be excised, but it is handled with speed and precision. While this is obviously not a play for everyone, the tickets are going very quickly. Likely, this is due to the loyal subscribers of Lincoln Center, the city’s relatively large and active Jewish population, and the fact that the Mitzi Newhouse is a small venue.

All that being said, these are not easy shows to pull off. They are often criticized for being little more than dramatized history lessons. “Oslo” reminded me somewhat of the last successful political piece on Broadway, “All the Way” with Bryan Cranston as LBJ. That one too followed the progress of some fairly important documents over a compressed period of time, and also featured a very large cast of characters. These are not the kinds of plays that necessarily have long lives or even travel well. “All The Way” was recently made into an HBO movie so that one is preserved. “Oslo” might be a candidate for a similar presentation.

“Oslo” is about real people, though playwright Rogers says the words are largely imagined. Hey, nothing wrong with that. Lin Manuel Miranda read a dense biography of a Founding Father and imagined those guys not only looking different than they do in the textbooks, but rhyming and rapping in between all that debating and dueling.