Poor Scandinavia. It is quite often the neglected child of Europe. Yet with low crime, free health care, social equality, extended maternity/paternity leave and other perks, it consistently ranks the highest on the world Happiness Index. Perhaps it is Scandinavia’s neutrality that causes oversight. Other countries do not seek fights with it, nor does it instigate feuds with other parts of the world.
Yet Sweden, Finland, and Russia’s neighbor, Norway is currently the toast of Broadway thanks to J.T. Rogers’ lengthy, but incredibly satisfying new play, Oslo. Not only is the work fascinating, but its origins are equally as intriguing. The groundwork for the three hour tale began with the actual diplomat, Terje Rod-Larsen, portrayed with exquisite propriety by Jefferson Mays. Larsen was friends with director Bartlett Sher, who helmed Rogers’ last play, Blood and Gifts. In 2012, Rogers and Larsen met over drinks and spoke about Larsen’s involvement about the politics of the Middle East. Along with his wife, Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle), the pair single handedly orchestrated a secret series of talks between Israeli and Palestinian forces which led to a world famous handshake in September 1993. In spite of Marianne Heiberg (Henny Russell), wife of the Norwegian Prime Minister, who proclaimed that The Middle East “doesn’t do peace”, the pair carefully and skillfully managed to pull off the feat.
With a host of characters from both sides, Rogers epic work weaves a political story reminiscent of All the Way or Frost/Nixon; We know how it will end and yet we thrill to watch the gears churning on this fast paced locomotive. I was a bit concerned when I took my seat; Would I understand the complex relationships? Would it be worth the three hour investment of time? Would the play inflict its’ own agenda? Answers: Yes. Absolutely Yes! No. Open minded audiences will walk away with an understanding of both sides for it is not the religious war that is the focus; instead it is the human relationships.
In a Lincoln Center interview, director Sher, who has worked on musicals, operas, and straight plays, was asked to name the most difficult form of entertainment in which to work. He cited straight plays because, with musicals, one has the luxury of built-in music. In plays, one is forced to find the rhythm of the play. Sher has succeeded tenfold here. Although there is no music, this play is a much needed song of hope in a current climate that embraces cynicism. We are not made to look foolish by the end, nor does Rogers paint a Pollyanna portrait of his leading players. Walking in, we acknowledge that the Oslo Accord did not last. One year after it was signed, Prime Minister Rabin was gunned down by an Israeli extremist. Yet Larsen and Juul state their case; They were led by a precise combination of diplomacy, heart, and intelligence. As a playwright, Rogers perfectly captured that. As an audience, we win.
Oslo is currently playing a limited, sold-out run at the Mitzi Newhouse through August 28th . It opens at Broadway’s Vivan Beaumont on March 23, 2017. For tickets, visit Lincoln Center.