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by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays

Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays.  Photo by Charles Erickson.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

In 1993, an historic handshake in the White House Rose Garden offered a promise but failed to deliver fulfillment.  Closer to fulfillment is J.T. Rogers' captivating and inspired drama, Oslo, now on Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse stage.   Rogers goes behind-the-scenes of the Oslo Peace Accords between Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and chairman Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and reveal the vital role of Norwegians in bringing it all about.

Three hours of intrigue follow Norwegian Terje Rød-Larsen (Jefferson Mays) director of the Fafo Institute for Applied Social Sciences, and his wife Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle) of Norway's Foreign Ministry.  Rogers' well-drawn book is skillfully paced by director Bartlett Sher, stressing the possibilities of striving for a challenging peace with Larsen and Juul planning secret meetings at Borregaard Estate outside Oslo between the emissaries from Israel and Palestine. 

The play poses thrilling arguments, builds with intrigue, hums with a mix of optimism and suspicion punched up with humor.  Although the ending reveals the bloodshed that continued after the Oslo Accord, Larsen's theme remains, "See how far we have come! If we have come this far, through blood, through fear— hatred—how much further can we yet go?... The Possibility."  This spirit keeps the play and its message from falling into pessimistic capitulation.

This back story of the Oslo Accords is true and documented.  In the playwright's note, Rogers makes clear that while chronology and locations vary, and the events actually took place and the characters are all true, although the dialogue is Rogers'. He does not present a play from one perspective, taking a Israeli or Palestinian side, but is mostly equitable and stresses a fierce determination for a peaceful agreement in an area that has long been a tinderbox.

 Adeptly directed by Sher, Rogers' exploration before the Washington meeting reveals the clandestine political negotiations, occasional “constructive ambiguity,” dinner parties, waffles and Scotch, between April, 1992 and September, 1993.  With drama, wit and gravitas, the emissaries of the two mid-East countries meet, talk and get to know each other in Oslo preparing for the big talks in Washington by Rabin and Arafat.  Playing Larsen, versatile Jefferson Mays drives the play in an unassuming yet bold way.  Graceful and unpretentious, Jennifer Ehle as Juul, periodically breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience, adding to an understanding of the events.  This couple are the coordinators.

The fire and fury come from the Palestinians and Israeli.  Anthony Azizi is magnetic as P.L.O. Finance Minister Ahmen Qurie or "Abu Ala" and Dariush Kashani is intimidating as sophisticated Hassan Asfour, Official P.L.O. Liason with the Palestinian Delegation at multilateral U.S.-sponsored talks. Daniel Oreskes is Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres (doubling also as a Professor in Haifa).  Adam Danniheisser plays Yossi Beilin, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister and Michael Aronov is brash as Uri Savir, Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.  Joseph Siravo portrays Joel Singer, Jewish Washington lawyer. The acting is forceful and cohesive with distinctive characterizations.

Michael Yeargan designed a spare Scandinavian set with mobile furniture to alternate scenes.  Background projections by 59 Production' provide additional timeline information.  Catherine Zuber dressed the characters conservatively and lighting by Donald Holder is dramatically emphatic.

At the end, cast members step forth to talk about the consequences of the Oslo Accord.  The handshake remains on the screen but the two sides have remained destructively separate although Israel withdrew from Gaza and a new Palestinian Authority was created.  The problems of Jerusalem and the West Bank remain.  Unfortunately the promise of this historic handshake was not fulfilled but Oslo is thought-provoking and a show to be seen.

Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
150 West 65 Street. NYC 
Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes.  Two intermissions
Written:  J. T. Rogers 
Directed: Bartlett Sher
Cast: Terje Rod-Larsen (Jefferson Mays), Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle), Marianne Heilberg (Henny Russell), Johan Jorgen Holst (T. Ryder Smith), Yossi Beilin (Adam Dannheisser), Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi), Yair Hiarschfeld (Daniel Oreskes), Jan Egeland(Daniel Jenkins), Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani), Ron Pundak (Daniel Jenkins), Finn Grandal (T. Ryder Smith), Toril Grandal (Henny Russell), American Diplomat (Christopher McHale), Uri Savie (Michael Aronov), Trond Gundersen (Jeb Krieger), Thor Bjornevog (Christopher McHale), Joel Singer (Joseph Siravo), German Husband (Jeb Krieger), German Wife (Angela Pierce), Shimon Peres (Daniel Oreskes), Swedishs Hostess (Henny Russell)
Previews: June 16, 2016. Opened July 11, 2016. Closing August 28, 2016. Coming to Broadway in 2017.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

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