Monday, August 22, 2016

The Crooked Timber of Humanity: J.T. Rogers’ Oslo

Jennifer Ehle, T. Ryder Smith, Jefferson Mays and Henny Russell in Oslo. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

True political theatre – in which issues are dramatized rather than just personified by characters embodying contrasting views and the text explores a political subject rather than proselytizing - doesn’t come naturally to American playwrights. We tend to look to the Brits for this kind of writing, which is why J.T. Rogers’ Oslo, which recently completed a run in the intimate Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, in a gripping and poignant production staged with masterly resourcefulness by Bartlett Sher, feels like a particular triumph. (The play will transfer to Lincoln Center’s large space, the Vivian Beaumont, in the spring; the Beaumont is a Broadway house, so the play will be eligible for Tony Award nominations next season.) Rogers’ Rwanda play, The Overwhelming, is modest but effective, at least on the page (I haven’t seen it performed); its virtue lies in its restraint, its refusal to fall into melodrama, and to that end he places an American family transplanted to Rwanda in the center of the play and filters the horrors of the genocide through their response to it. Rogers has written two plays about Afghanistan; the one I’ve seen, Blood and Gifts, which Sher also directed at the Newhouse, is set between 1981 and 1991, and its historical focus is part of what makes it so unusual and intriguing. Rogers is clearly interested in boiling-point locations, but he’s a humanist, not a polemicist, and I think he keeps getting better as a playwright.

Oslo, about the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993, is a big work: a three-hour, three-act play with a cast of twenty-one, here played by fourteen actors, that occasionally draws on a cinematic use of space (Michael Yeargan designed the fluid unit set) to cross enormous geographical distances. Of the three I’m familiar with, it’s certainly Rogers’ most ambitious play, but once again he finds an unconventional path to his subject matter. Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres for signing the accord, but in Oslo Rabin and Arafat are offstage presences – as indeed they were until the very last stage of the “back-channel” talks that moved Palestine and Israel to a point of real communication while the U.S.-sponsored Middle East talks, which took place on the world stage, were hopelessly stalled. (Peres is a character in the play, but he doesn’t enter the proceedings until halfway through act three.) Rogers employs Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle), an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, as the narrator; she and her husband Terje Rød-Larses (Jefferson Mays), the director of the Fafo Institute for Applied Social Sciences, are the unexpected hosts who bring PLO officials and Israelis together at an estate outside Oslo on three separate occasions to pave the way for the seven-hour telephone negotiations in Stockholm in September of 1993. These have to be conducted by phone, with Terje as the intermediary, because Israeli law forbids Rabin or Foreign Minister Peres (Daniel Oreskes) or Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin (Adam Danheisser) to have contact with Arafat or any member of the PLO. The entire process is a miracle of diplomatic finesse – of indirection, of shifting screens. Juul and Larsen aren’t the protagonists of the story; they’re the catalysts, whose graciousness and generosity (and the marvelous food they provide, courtesy of the housekeeper at the Borregaard estate, played by Henny Russell) provide an environment in which an atmosphere of mutual respect and openness can flourish. Their inclusion in the play adds an extra layer of irony and wonder.

Anthony Azizi, Dariush Kashani, Michael Aronov, Joseph Siravo (foreground), Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays (background).
(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Each of the acts has a distinct shape and color. Act one is structured as a flashback, with, as its frame, the moment when Terje and Mona let the new Foreign Minister, Johan Jorgen Holst (T. Ryder Smith), in on the secret that they’ve been fielding phone calls from both the Israelis and the Palestinians. This is the next step from the unofficial talks Mona’s boss, Jan Egeland, the new Deputy Foreign Minister (Daniel Jenkins), endorsed, between the PLO Finance Minister, Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi), known as Abu Ala, and the PLO liaison with the Palestinian delegation at the U.S.-sponsored talks, Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani), on the one hand and a pair of University of Haifa economists (played by Orekes and Jenkins) on the other. The first act is about the first two rounds of talks – about the obstacles that have to be vaulted over in order to facilitate a conversation between a pair of PLO officials and a pair of Israelis while, back in the Middle East, hostilities are escalating. But the talks can’t turn into real negotiations until Beilin, who sent the Israeli economists to Oslo without informing Rabin, “upgrades,” i.e., permits an Israeli politician and not just a couple of political science professors to haggle with Abu Ala and Asfour. That’s what happens in act two. In order to keep Abu Ala, who is really the key Palestinian figure in the talks, from walking away, Terje has to resort to subterfuge: he informs Abu Ala that Beilin is prepared to upgrade before he actually is. (Asfour is vociferous but his contributions are less significant and more predictable. His usual mode of communication is a combination of doctrinaire Marxist rhetoric and a tendency to shout himself hoarse; Rogers and Kashani turn the first into a good running gag.) The way in which Holst and his wife Marianne Heiberg (Russell) learn what’s going on involves some manipulation of the truth as well: the Larsens invite them for dinner at a time when they know they will be receiving phone calls from Israel and Palestine and then pretend they had no idea they’d be calling; they claim there must have been a mix-up due to the time zones. So they expose the situation to Holst but make it look like an accident. Holst storms out of the dinner when he finds out what Terje has been up to, but he’s received the information he needed to when he needed to receive it.

The protagonists of the play are Abu Ala and Uri Savir (Michael Aronov), the Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who enters the talks in the second act. At this point the audience, too, is admitted to the negotiations, marking a major dramatic shift in the text. Rogers takes as his epigraph a quotation from Kant, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made,” and these two men, passionate patriots, flamboyant showmen, both earthy and witty and arrogant, face off and, improbably but convincingly, become friends. At the top of the play Mona tells us that her and Terje’s point of view about the Middle East was altered forever when, on a visit to Israel, they saw a confrontation between an Israeli and a Palestinian soldier, both teenagers, a moment that, in her telling of it, recalls the famous scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the German youth and the French youth meet in the trench. What happens in the course of Oslo between Savir and Abu Ala builds on Mona’s story (and, implicitly, on that quintessential moment in Remarque’s novel and Lewis Milestone’s 1930 movie of it). Playing these crooked timbers of humanity, Azizi and Aronov give immense, robust, extremely physical performances as characters Terje describes as two bulls in a china shop. I was familiar with Azizi mostly through the TV shows I’ve seen him on (like Commander in Chief); I knew Aronov’s work better. This is the third time he’s collaborated with Bartlett Sher; he was Siggie, the boxer hero’s cab-driving brother-in-law, in Sher’s great production of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy and Gromov the KGB man in Blood and Gifts.

Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

When Joel Singer (Joseph Siravo), a retired Israeli army officer who is now a Washington lawyer, joins the negotiations in round three, they become thornier. He arrives, all business, presenting himself as the voice of Yitzhak Rabin, ousts the two economics professors, and moves down a list of two hundred questions for the Palestinians. (Rogers doesn’t deal with the rivalry between Rabin and Peres, but when Uri tells Singer, “Let us be clear, Joel: you are here for Itzak, I am here for Shimon,” we get the picture.) Act three, which tells the story of how the “back-channel” discussions became the real peace talks, is as distinct from either of the previous acts as they are from each other. Emotionally this is the breakthrough act; it covers not only the final movement toward the historic moment when the two sides come together, but also, in a Brechtian coda, the tragic aftermath – Rabin’s assassination, the recommenced hostilities between Israel and Palestine.

Mays and Ehle give supremely controlled performances of such subtly that, especially next to Aronov and Azizi, their skillfulness is easy to overlook. Mays is famous for his theatricality in plays like I Am My Own Wife and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, but here he plays a man who has to accept his role as the invisible man in the peace accords and so the point of his performance must be its understatement. The relationship of the two central negotiators to Terje is fascinating: their movement from adversaries to peace collaborators (and finally friends), bizarrely, shifts their anger from each other to him, even though it’s he who has made the collaboration possible. It doesn’t happen with Mona, because both Uri and Abu Ala are old-world gentlemen whose attitude toward women is chivalrous; she benefits from the fact that they’re too sexist to treat her the same way they treat her husband.

The entire ensemble, which also includes Christopher McHale, Jeb Kreager and Angela Pierce, performs admirably, and the double casting is sometimes wizardly. (As Jan Egeland and Ron Pundak, the junior economist, Daniel Jenkins seems to be two completely different actors, and I didn’t realize that Russell played Marianne Heiberg as well as Toril Grandal until I checked my program.) The only actor on the stage who can’t pull off the switch is Daniel Oreskes, but that’s because, square and bearish, he’s such a recognizable physical specimen. The consistency of the acting is a trademark of Sher’s large-scale shows; God knows it was true of Golden Boy. There he and his actors served a classic American text that had fallen into obscurity; here they bring a wonderful new play to life.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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