NEW YORK — Let us consider the extraordinary achievement of “Oslo,” hands down the best new play of the season.
Creating riveting drama out of the intransigence of implacable enemies is no modest trick, but darned if playwright J.T. Rogers doesn’t pull it off, and grandly. This story of a three-dimensional geopolitical chess match, told as if each player were a complete human being capable of passion, error, humor and honor, reveals the keen eye and ear of a writer working in veritable mind-melding harmony with a superb director, Bartlett Sher.
Along with a 14-person cast headed by Jefferson Mays, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Aronov and Anthony Azizi, they recount the remarkable events set in motion by a Norwegian husband-and-wife team of foreign policy experts that led in 1993 to breakthrough secret talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. That the historic accord, which would lead to the establishment of the first Palestinian self-governing authority, would be brokered in a Nordic state far from the centers of global diplomatic power is only one of the surprising facets of “Oslo,” which officially opened Thursday night in Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont Theater.
The generous spirit of a dramatist writing with such persuasive compassion about his characters — who act out of both selfish and selfless motives, who stake positions forged in pain and maneuver brutally for what sometimes seems inconsequential advantage — is another. Rogers has created in the characters of Terje (pronounced TIE-ah) Rod-Larsen and wife Mona Juul a beguiling couple through whom we get to channel our perceptions of how this unlikely success came to pass. And in the impeccable performances of Mays and Ehle, Sher finds an ideal pair to portray these warriors for peace, with Mays’s coldly theory-driven Terje softened by Ehle’s warmly practical-minded Mona.
The production’s cause is helped immeasurably by the supporting cast, and especially by Azizi as levelheaded Abu Ala, the Palestine Liberation Organization finance minister, and Aronov portraying live-wire Uri Savir, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official who eventually is dispatched to negotiate for the Israeli side. Another aid is a programming decision: moving the production from Lincoln Center’s off-Broadway Mitzi Newhouse Theater, where “Oslo” had its premiere last year with the same cast, to the larger, Tony-eligible Beaumont. “Oslo” is a play that seems to expand in symbolic as well as physical stature the bigger the stage you see it on. Michael Yeargan’s set, with its monumental blank walls, suggesting the immensity of the assignment the Norwegians have taken on, is also a towering screen for the intermittent news-video projections by 59 Productions — videos that on this occasion do not come across as a perfunctory theatrical device. If anything, they serve to ratchet up the tension.
And how expertly rattling are the multitudinous rapid-fire scenes of “Oslo,” which smartly intermingle our sense of the explosive potential of the meetings between the Israelis and Palestinians, with the ongoing suspense of how the outcome of Terje and Mona’s freelancing might jeopardize their own careers. Early in the proceedings, Terje introduces to us the experimental approach to diplomacy, what he terms “gradualism,” that gives him the impetus to make his bold overtures: The theory goes that if the talks invest heavily in giving negotiators a personal stake in each other, having them get to know one another in some meaningful way before they tackle the dispute, one issue at a time, the chances for a positive result increase.
Terje’s aims match up nicely with the playwright’s, because understanding who these people were is precisely what “Oslo” is about. Since Israeli law prohibited government officials from meeting with the PLO, Abu Ala and his doctrinaire, sloganeering associate, Hassan (the terrific Dariush Kashani) initially sit down in Oslo with a pair of Israeli economics professors (played with robust comic abandon by Daniel Oreskes and Daniel Jenkins). Mays, with the fussy intensity of a therapist a little too involved in his patients’ health, explains that in the castle outside Oslo in which they are all sequestered, they are meant to be friends. As much as anything, the play is the account of the rocky, and improbable, friendships that manage to bloom.
Some of us may be easy marks for any hint of humanity in a story of the indelible tragedy of the Middle East. “Oslo,” in its account of intractable foes finding common ground, is irresistible and, ultimately, deeply moving. Jokes are related at the negotiating table, at the expense of the string-pulling leaders behind the scenes, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin; memories are shared about the suffering of warring peoples, the devotion to loved ones at home. The small acts of soul-bearing indeed bind the characters to one another — and an audience to them. Around Rogers’s captivating table, gradualism is a triumph for everyone.
Oslo, by J.T. Rogers. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Set, Michael Yeargan; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Peter John Still and Marc Salzburg; projections, 59 Productions. With Adam Dannheisser, Henny Russell, Joseph Siravo, T. Ryder Smith. About 2 hours 55 minutes. Tickets, $87-$147. At Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 W. 65th St., New York Visit lct.org or call 212-239-6200.