Review: Humor allays tension to complex history in 'Oslo'

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — "Oslo," a new play by J.T. Rogers directed by Bartlett Sher, is a riveting political thriller with a personal approach.

It features tense, behind-the-scenes dialogue that might have occurred during top-secret peace negotiations that took place in 1992-1993 between representatives of two bitterly sworn enemies, the state of Israel and then-terrorist group the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

Such is the skill of the production that opened Monday night at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center that we feel caught up in real negotiations of the so-called Oslo Accord, although the top-notch ensemble is deftly portraying both real people and invented characters.

Based on inside information provided by the real-life Norwegian facilitators in Oslo, diplomat Mona Juul and her husband Terje Rod-Larsen (admirably portrayed by the ever-luminous Jennifer Ehle and a lively Jefferson Mays), Rogers and Sher use impressive compression to present a multitude of possible behind-the-scenes interactions that eventually produced the first ever peace agreement between Israel and the P.L.O.

Darkly humorous comments permeate the tense conversations, arguments, impossible rifts and grudging compromises that play out in swiftly-paced scenes, interrupted by two intermissions that give the audience a chance to shake off the tension before the pressure ratchets upward again. Projections of grainy newsreel footage from that time remind us of the real-life, deadly turmoil ongoing between the two sides.

Frequent impasses are smoothed over by the amazing persuasive powers of Juul and Larsen, which Ehle in particular conveys with saintly irony. She also narrates the story, informing the audience where we are as multiple short scenes take place in various locations. Aftermaths of discord are eased with liquor and the culinary output of an excellent cook.

As the two primary Palestinian negotiators, living in exile and outnumbered as the Israeli team expands, Anthony Azizi brings dignity and wry humor to Abu Ala, while Dariush Kashani provides much-needed comic relief when his character, Hassan Asfour, stiffly spouts Communist propaganda. Daniel Oreskes and Daniel Jenkins are humbly sturdy as a pair of Israeli economics professors who initially represent their country in the secret talks, while Oreskes also brings weary gravitas to his portrayal of Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres.

The talents of cast and crew in "Oslo" make a complex historical event feel understandable, intimate and profoundly affecting.