JUNE 15, 2017 – NEW YORK – Can secret back channel negotiations between warring peoples succeed where open public ones do not? Should major allies with their own agendas stay out of such talks? Could classic opponents actually have much in common? Might such enemies accomplish more by taking the risk of seeing each other’s point of view? These are some of the provocative questions powerfully examined in J.T. Rogers’ thoughtful political drama “Oslo” (Off-Broadway 2016), tightly staged by gifted Broadway director Bartlett Sher at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre. If Hamas’ dominance of Palestinian parliamentary elections and the fundamentalist terrorist organization’s commitment to the destruction of Israel diminish any positive achievements of the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords, this insightful play nevertheless remains compelling and strikingly suspenseful.
Set largely in the title city, Rogers’ timely drama developed from a chance connection with Norwegian diplomat Terje Rod-Larsen through mutual acquaintance Sher (a Holy Cross graduate whose father happens to be a Lithuanian-born Jew). “Oslo” finds somewhat highly emotional Rod-Larsen and his relatively calmer diplomat wife Mona Juul risking their own positions to initiate meaningful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians without interference from America or any other major powers. Informal talks become formal as non-government Jewish scholars make way for Uri Savir, the director general of Israel’s foreign ministry. Tensions grow and Rogers’ dialogue catches particular fire as Savir stresses Israel’s need for security and recognition of its right to exist. Meanwhile, PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie calls Israeli settlements illegal and insists that the status of Jerusalem be included from the start in negotiations.
The Oslo talks take on a good-cop, bad-cop posture as Savir and Qurie curiously find some common ground in contrast to their fairly ballistic colleagues – Israel-backing lawyer Joel Singer and Palestinian hardliner Hassan Asfour. Not surprisingly, it takes a lot of mid-level negotiation, the formulation of a Declaration of Principles and the participation of Shimon Peres before Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat (both cleverly unseen in the play) arrive in Washington for the official Oslo Accord 1. In what may be the most moving moment of those negotiations and the play itself, Savir and Qurie actually shake hands.
To the credit of Sher and his stellar cast, Rogers’ balanced three-hour dramatic slugfest (including one intermission) proves a compelling fast-paced thriller. Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle are impressively subtle as the Norwegian diplomats. Charismatic Michael Aronov combines swagger, ferocity and warmth as Savir in a standout performance. Anthony Azizi catches Ahmed’s charm along with his tenacity.
To borrow from the play’s own words, may the unthinkable become thinkable. “Oslo” is a thrilling call for meaningful dialogue and peace through understanding.
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Call 2017 a banner year for Jewish talent and fare at the Tonys. The belonging-focused musical “Dear Evan Hansen” (Music Box Theatre) and the revival of the 1964 Jerry Herman gem “Hello, Dolly!” (Shubert Theatre) proved the big winners. “Dear Evan Hansen” took six Tonys – including best musical score. Ben Platt, cited as best male lead in a musical, asserted, “What makes you strange makes you powerful.” Bette Midler, in accepting her best female musical lead prize for “Hello, Dolly!” called the four Tony-honored best musical revival “the ride of my life” and singled out producer Scott Rudin for praise.
“Oslo,” the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks-centered drama, was voted best play, and Michael Aronov best featured actor in a play in the role of Israeli negotiator Uri Savir. The Paula Vogel play “Indecent” (Cort Theatre) which deals with a scandal involving the Sholem Asch Yiddish drama “God of Vengeance,” also took two Tonys – including best direction to Rebecca Taichman, who praised her parents for advising her to follow her passion and give attention to social justice.
“Oslo”, Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center (Broadway), through July 2. 212-239-6200.