What would it take to get you to Lincoln Center Theater to see a three-hour political drama about the 1993 peace treaty between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization known as the Oslo Accords? I doubt this review is going to do it, which is really a shame, because “Oslo,” a new drama by J.T. Rogers, is unequivocally fascinating. Would that some playwright would write as gripping a play about some contemporary political issue. But again, who would go to see it?
LCT subscribers should know how lucky they are, having the opportunity to see director Bartlett Sher’s striking production of this compelling drama. Heading the flawlessly cast ensemble are Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle as the Norwegian tacticians who pull off the incredible coup of getting high-level officials from Israel and the PLO in the same room and actually talking with one another.
Terje Rod-Larsen (Mays) is the inspired and somewhat excitable academic who dares to reach out to the Israelis to start the delicate and dangerous process of these secret negotiations. Terje is a fussy fellow who dresses so well (costumer Catherine Zuber scores again) and whose manners are so refined that Yitzak Rabin insists on referring to him as a Frenchman. Mona Juul (Ehle), his wife and the narrator of the dramatic events, is the even-tempered government diplomat who does whatever has to be done — from ordering the liquor to putting out emotional fires — to make it happen.
“It’s a very small country,” Mona says to the audience, graciously explaining the extremely tight personal and political relationships. “We take nepotism to an entirely new level.” No, that’s not a one-off quip. Rogers’ (“Blood and Gifts”) clever dialogue really is that witty. You get the facts, but you get them delivered with intelligence and humor by this dream of a cast. It’s the petty stuff — the pseudonyms, the clandestine phone calls, the drinking competitions, and all the other trappings of macho bravado — that makes these intimidating characters so human. And so funny.
Michael Yeargan’s scenic design and 59 Productions’ projections of constantly breaking battles makes it clear that neutral Norway aspires to be a very soothing nation in a world gone mad. The walls of the classically designed meeting rooms are painted in a restful shade of grayish blue, the furniture is comfortable, and everyone gets exactly the same kind of chair to throw across the room in a rage.
But once the principals meet each other face-to-face for the first time, we might as well be in the blood-splattered ring of a cockfight. In that spirit, Rogers smartly allows all parties to attack their counterparts with a vengeance, drawing on generations of historical grievances. It actually takes three acts, which fly by like hours spent at the circus, to make these mortal enemies calm down enough to listen honestly to one another and acknowledge that they have more in common than they would ever admit.
The impeccable casting of these superbly drawn characters acknowledges their individual differences, as well as the common humanity that ultimately wins out. Representing the Israelis, Shimon Peres (Daniel Oreskes) is the soul of statesmanship, while his right arm man, Yossi Beilin (Adam Dannheisser) growls like the Russian Communist bear he is. The third member of their group, the swaggering director general of the foreign ministry Uri Savir (Michael Aronov), is the star power, a dashing fellow who wears his floor-length leather coat like a movie star.
The Israelis are the comedians, deadly serious, but always calculating how to disarm their enemies. When given the stage, they stun their PLO counterparts by telling jokes — which leaves the Palestinians to draw on their own ancient tongue and to play the poets. No wonder it takes these guys three acts to find a common language.
The PLO finance minister Ahmed Ourie, known as Abu Ala, is a riveting presence in Anthony Azizi’s wrenching performance. Not to give too much away, because the play is constructed very much as a suspense drama, but it’s a jaw-dropping moment when the Norwegians realize that Ourie’s hushed phone calls home, asking for permission to make deals, are all a sham. The man is acting entirely on his own, which could mean his life.
Such moments, in fact, are what director Sher draws on to make “Oslo” so compulsively watchable. The moment when two of the men realize they have given their daughters the same name; when the private talk turns to fathers; when the Palestinians try to top an Israeli joke (can’t be done, but please recite another poem); when one man puts a friendly hand on another’s shoulder and they go for a walk together; when they toast each other for their “constructive ambiguity.” And in the end, when the searing image of a handshake of peace between two enemies makes the entire audience gasp.
This is what we call drama, and it’s what we live for. So, go, already — live!