Review by Kathleen Campion

Oslo; Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson

Everything about Oslo is improbable — not least, the notion of an entertaining tale of Mideast peace negotiations.

Oslo’s genesis is as remarkable as its content.  After a 2011 performance of their Blood and Gifts, director Bartlett Sher and playwright J.T. Rogers headed for the lobby of the Mitzi Newhouse, where they ran into a Norwegian couple of Sher’s acquaintance, a couple who were the unlikely engineers of the turbulent back-channel negotiations that led to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, between Israel and the PLO.  Rogers became so intrigued with their story, he spent the next several years writing the dense and compelling Oslo now on at the Vivian Beaumont.  Sher directs.

The couple in question, Mona Juul, (Jennifer Ehle) an official in the ministry, and Terje Rod-Larson, (Jefferson Mays) the director of an academic institute, are entertaining colleagues in the opening scene.  The point of the story is among the opening lines.  Terje tells the party about meeting Yitzhak Rabin and having found him a boor.  “Six months later, Rabin is prime minister, and I am a fool,” says Terje. “Why? Because I saw one side of this man and assumed this meant I knew all of him.”

This realization leads to his thesis of Gradualism — a new way to approach negotiations — a thesis he is hungry to test on the Mideast problem.  Terje’s model “…is rooted not in the organizational but the personal.”  He tells us: “It is only through the sharing of the personal that we can see each other for who we truly are.”

So Rogers gives us a frame for the play: can gradualism succeed where traditional negotiations have demonstrably failed.  As in Frayn’s Copenhagen, the pursuit of the big idea, however worthy, can get tiresome, if not relieved by credible characters, witty exchanges, deft direction, and fine performances.  Oslo offers all of that.

Mona is the brains of the operation.  She manages the men, who are inclined to grandiosity and bombast.  Closer to home, she manages us, the audience, as she steps to the lip of the stage on occasion to “catch us up” with needed exposition.  The remarkably winning Jennifer Ehle makes us her confidants.

There is a touching innocence of first encounters, as men who have hated and fought each other, meet for the first time.  “You are my first Jew!” leads to a disarming retort.

There is schtick and joke telling, and comic impersonation.  Even a toast to Kissinger’s ass.

There are wickedly funny moments as when the Israeli firebrand, focuses on Mona’s hips, verbally cuckholding her ambitious husband.  All in good fun, I guess.

Cuckhold or not, Mays manages to give Terje a credible enthusiasm for the task at hand as well as a humanizing vulnerability.  He is Everyman, not Superman.

The protagonists quite literally push the negotiating tables into place much as they push the process.  Good idea (the furniture moving) but it gets old fast.  Michael Yeargan’s stark set, elegant but stark, uses video running on the back wall of the Beaumont stage to add color, and to pace the action in the outside world.  At the same time it reinforces the cocooned setting of these intense negotiations.

Oslo, was produced in a smaller frame last year at the Newhouse.  It is now enjoying a limited run at the more capacious Beaumont before heading to London’s National Theater.

Oslo – Written by J.T. Rogers; Directed by Bartlett Sher

WITH: Michael Aronov (Uri Savir), Anthony Azizi (Ahmed Qurie), Adam Dannheisser (Yossi Beilin), Jennifer Ehle (Mona Juul), Daniel Jenkins (Jan Egeland, Ron Pundak), Dariush Kashani (Hassan Asfour), Jeb Kreager (Trond Gundersen, German Husband), Jefferson Mays (Terje Rod-Larsen), Christopher McHale (American Diplomat,Thor Bjornevog) Daniel Oreskes (Yair Hirschfeld), Angela Pierce (German Wife), Henny Russell (Marianne Heiberg, Toril Grandal, Swedish Hostess), Joseph Siravo (Jeff Still) and T. Ryder Smith (Johan Jorgen Holst, Finn Grandal).

Designed by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Donald Holder, sound by Peter John Still and Marc Salzburg, projection by 59 Productions. Presented by Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont, W 65th Street, Manhattan through June 18th.  Running time: 3 hours with one intermission. Tickets