Wrenched from the receding annals of diplomacy, “Oslo” by J.T. Rogers examines the furtive, incremental steps that led to the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO in 1993.
Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle play our gracious hosts, a Norwegian couple who initiate the secret talks in Oslo, on the stage at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont. Utilizing their connections within their country’s foreign ministry, they risk blowblack from every quarter in their efforts to get the two sides to sit down and talk in the same room.
The play itself assumes many risks of such an historic gathering. We see entrenched opposition, the tinderbox status quo, legacies of mistrust, and divisive internal rivalry. “Oslo” also shares some bad behavior common to the conference table. Thus we witness not only suspicions, intransigence and ignorance, but also repeated argument, splintered factions and shouting.
And, so in this case, the challenges of diplomacy — civility, understanding, and problem-solving — devolve into actors bellowing at each other, repeatedly. No one wins this way.
But the issues remain perplexing as always, and “Oslo” does not shy away from the challenge of getting the big picture out into the open.
The production gains nothing from director Bartlett Sher’s decision to keep it busy. Transitions between scenes are marked by repetitive shuttling of furniture or punctuated by video projects of street violence. These choices, perhaps made to accommodate the production’s move from the Newhouse to the Beaumont, do not add to the urgency of the historical moment, or the context of the action, which falters at times due to some awkward chemistry in the cast.
Jefferson Mays anchors the show with his steady, compassionate hand. Daniel Oreskes handles his dual roles with convincing gravitas. And Anthony Azizi as Yasser Arafat’s mouthpiece is powerful and magnetic.
But as his Israeli counterpart, Michael Aronov, sabotages pivotal scenes with his self-indulgent peacock bravado. It’s almost enough to detail the efforts of the rest of this large, admirable cast, who do convince us of the perils of this secretive diplomacy.
In this, the play is a fascinating slice of history, a cultural companion to all the forces tangled in the Holy Land and the passions that animate them.
But the results are prosaic. Once the F-bombs and the shouting begin, all hope is lost. We see, once again, how difficult the question of peace can be. But we knew that already, though our hosts make the point that the value is in the trying.
True. But insights of a deeper sort are lost in the constant tensions of a quarrel, one that only goes so far.
Two glimmers come to mind. Opposing characters each have daughters named Maya, and we are told that they become friends. What then?
And a brief debate over who picks up the trash highlights the read everyday crux of this struggle of two peoples trying to survive side by side.
Playwright J.T. Rogers’ epic approach shows us the backstage intrigues and conflicts, but neither the grit nor the eloquence needed to transcend those moments for a greater understanding of this fraught, persistent stalemate.
‘Oslo’ runs through June 18 at Lincoln Center Theater, 150 W. 65th St., Manhattan. For tickets, call (844) 379-0370.