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Politics of the Personal: ‘Oslo’

May 10th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

'Oslo' at Lincoln Center Theater (T Charles Erickson Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Oslo’ at Lincoln Center Theater (T Charles Erickson Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

I have a friend who’s written a play about a major 20th-century diplomatic crisis but is struggling to find a way to compress its many characters and complex issues into a solid drama with a reasonable run time. I believe, though, he might get a handle on his play if he studies Oslo, J.T. Rogers’s stimulating envisioning of the secret talks that led to the Oslo Peace Accords, signed in 1993.

At the signing, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzik Rabin shook hands with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in the White House Rose Garden as President Clinton looked on. Regardless of the criticisms the rather shaky Accords received, no other diplomatic breakthrough has come as close to establishing Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Oslo, warmly received on its premiere last summer at Lincoln Center’s Newhouse, is now ensconced upstairs at the Broadway-level Beaumont, where the same 15 actors are giving it a vigorous, if not particularly subtle, performance under the firm baton of Bartlett Sher.

'Oslo' at Lincoln Center Theater (T Charles Erickson Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Oslo’ at Lincoln Center Theater (T Charles Erickson Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

The fascinating story is enacted on Michael Yeargan’s imposing yet spare set, intended to suggest multiple neutral environments, with perfectly timed trap doors and actors smoothly moving furniture from one of the many scenes to another.

Rogers’s play is about the well-documented but previously little-known backchannel diplomacy that led to the Accords. The material was first brought to Rogers’s attention in 2011 when he met one of the two Norwegian diplomats whose idea it was. He then fashioned his extensive research into this nearly three-hour drama, lightened by occasional humor, focusing on the principal participants.

At its heart are the Norwegians, Terje Rød-Larsen, a highly placed sociologist, and his wife, Mona Juul, an official in the Foreign Ministry. Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle carry these roles with marvelous dignity and aplomb.

Terje and Mona believe that the only way to bring peace to these combative Middle Eastern rivals is to begin on the most basic human level, not at conference tables visible to the entire world, but in private meetings between dedicated representatives discussing matters unofficially on behalf of their leaders. Everyone else, especially the U.S., is to be kept in the dark.

The theory is that when the adversaries get to know each other as people, not abstractions, over food (in particular, a housekeeper’s [Henny Russell] waffles) and drink (Johnny Walker deserves a Nobel Prize), they’ll learn to live and let live.

Oslo is the result of how Rogers’s research led him to imagine Terje and Mona’s maneuvering to bring the two sides together, especially when facing the skepticism of Norwegian Foreign Minister Johan Jorgen Holst (T. Ryder Smith), and the contentious behavior of the hated enemies when left alone in the same room. His method, as Rogers has written, involved conflating characters, compressing chronology, and assigning actions to others than those who did them.

In addition, Rogers says: “Though every character . . . is named for a real person, the words they say are mine.” Thus we not only get some funny jokes that were probably never told but hear countless “F-word” missiles being launched, an overused tic presumably meant to reveal the distinguished participants as flesh-and-blood human beings.

Rogers, occasionally assisted by video projections (by 59 Productions) of both information and bloody events, wisely incorporates both sides of the conflict without favoring either. All the familiar obstacles, such as the fates of Jerusalem and the Israeli settlements, are on the table and each side gets to quarrel passionately about the other’s egregious behavior.

In fact, enough angry steam is blown off to crumble the walls of Jericho; there’s so much shouting it’s a wonder anything gets done at all. (These frequent histrionic outbreaks, which tend to dehumanize and theatricalize the negotiators, are the production’s greatest weakness.)

Meanwhile, Mona and Terje steer clear of partisanship as they tiptoe through the complicated minefield to keep the sensitive talks on track.

'Oslo' at Lincoln Center Theater (T Charles Erickson Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Oslo’ at Lincoln Center Theater (T Charles Erickson Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

Of the three principal leaders, Arafat, Rabin, and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres (Daniel Oreskes), only the latter actually appears, although Arafat is comically impersonated by Uri Savir, the volatile, wise guy Deputy General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, energetically acted by Michael Aronov.

The talks begin with four participants, the PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie a.k.a. Abu Ala (Anthony Azizi) and the PLO Liaison Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani), an explosive Marxist, for the Palestinians, and, for the Israelis, two Haifa University professors, Yair Hirschfeld (Oreskes) and Ron Pundak (Daniel Jenkins).

Only after the discussions move one step forward, one step back, toward a resolution, do they progress to where the leaders themselves learn of them, which leads to their eventual conclusion.

Promising as were the results, of course, it wasn’t long before they were riddled with bullets and sprayed with blood. Today the situation remains much as it was before, with little optimism in view. Oslo reminds us of how difficult the path to peace remains.

Oslo
Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont
150 W. 65th St, NYC
Through June 18

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

 

 

 

 

 

Opening Night: ‘Falsettos’ on Broadway

October 27th, 2016 Comments off

falsettosThe much-anticipated revival of William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos opens tonight on Broadway with an all-star cast that includes Stephanie J. Block (Wicked), Christian Borle (Something Rotten!, Peter and the Starcatcher), Andrew Rannells (The Book of Mormon, Hamilton), Tracie Thoms (Rent), Brandon Uranowitz (An American in Paris) and Betsy Wolfe (Bullets Over Broadway).

Co-book writer and original director James Lapine is back to helm this new production being brought to Broadway by Lincoln Center Theater, the company behind 2015’s Tony winning best revival The King and I.

Take a look behind the scenes…

Review Round-Up: Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”

March 16th, 2013 Comments off

L-R: Billy Magnussen, Kristine Nielsen, Sigourney Weaver, Genevieve Angelson, and David Hyde Pierce in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike". (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Christopher Durang is at it again. The author of such absurdist hits (and acting school favorites) as The Marriage of Bette and Boo and Beyond Therapy is taking a jab at Chekhov — the master of theatrical realism. But instead of a Russian summer estate, Durang plops his characters in the middle of Bucks County, Pennsylvania for a riotous tour de force. The cast includes Tony and Academy Award nominee Sigourney Weaver and Tony and Emmy Award winner David Hyde Pierce.

Here’s what the critics had to say after opening night…

“In Durang Land, of course, heartache is generally fodder for belly laughs. There are enough sprinkled throughout his latest play to keep the temperature in the theater from cooling for long, although this romp through an Americanized version of Russian anomie is more a series of loosely connected set pieces than a cogently put-together play. (With little more than a postage-stamp of plot to embroider, Mr. Durang has his characters dress up as Disney cartoons and wander off to a costume party.)” The New York Times

“Restraint has never really been Durang’s thing. (After all, this is the man who turned the war on terror into a comedy called Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them.) Whatever he borrows from long-dead Russian playwrights, Vanya and Sonia… is entirely, indisputably, oh-no-he-didn’t classic Durang.” Entertainment Weekly

“The performances, first-rate from the start, have all gotten richer and sharper, and the ensemble playing is beautifully timed and textured. Sigourney Weaver’s narcissistic Masha is better integrated, every emotion radiating with childlike intensity as she thrashes about attempting to control events. Kristine Nielsen’s loopy Sonia—her Maggie Smith impersonation is priceless—is an ideal foil, full of vinegar and gall yet also touchingly vulnerable, especially during a hopeful phone call with a prospective suitor. As Vanya, David Hyde Pierce lies in wait for most of the night, landing his laughs with an eyebrow lift or a muttered quip, until he explodes into all-stops-out hilarity with a meltdown about the drawbacks of modernity.” Backstage

Golden Theatre
252 West 45th Street
www.vanyasoniamashaspike.com 

 

A Texas Two-Step: Review of “ANN” on Broadway

March 9th, 2013 Comments off

The Broadway Blog sent contributor Lindsay B. Davis to Lincoln Center for a Texas treat. Lindsay is an arts/culture journalist, actress, playwright and director. She resides in New York City.

“ANN” starring Holland Taylor at Lincoln Center Theater

At one point during the performance of Lincoln Center Theater’s ANN, a one-woman play written and performed by Emmy-nominated actress and first time playwright Holland Taylor, I turned to my fellow theatergoer and whispered, “I love her.” I no longer knew if I was referring to Taylor or the late ex-governor of Texas, Ann Richards, whom the actress portrays with warmth, intelligence and a physicality that captures the essence of her inspiration.

So it goes when an actress seamlessly gets out of the way to let a compelling character emerge. One doesn’t need to know anything about Ann Richards to enjoy ANN. It lives and breathes on its own as a solid work of theater, albeit a slightly uneven one as far as plot and storytelling goes. Familiar or not with the tough-talking, charming, witty political pioneer and champion of liberal values, feminism and the zingy retort, ANN satisfies beyond measure.

The play has a strong first act and immediately turns the audience into guests of a fictionalized commencement speech at a college in Texas. Taylor emerges in head to toe white, sporting Richards’s trademark coif, a power suit adorned with a diamond star brooch (representing not just the Lone Star state but the lucky star under which she believes to have been born), and smart heels. Through animated storytelling, we hear about Richards’s childhood in Waco, first foray into public service and office, various political inspirations and supporters, marriage to a civil rights lawyer, plus glimpses of her unapologetic descent into alcoholism and later, recovery.

Taylor almost dances across the stage as she entertains and tells jokes, some dirty, which she learned from her warm-hearted dad (Did you hear the one about the Terrier and Great Dane?). She speaks with the delight and skill of a seasoned cabaret artist or vaudevillian comedian. One can’t help but wonder if the real governor Richards was this entertaining but it doesn’t really matter. You’re too busy laughing to care.

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TO SEE OR NOT TO SEE: 2012 Fall Preview, The Plays

September 12th, 2012 Comments off

Steppenwolf's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?". Photo by Michael Brosilow.

If the fall season’s crop of musicals is a sparse and eccentrically planted lot, the roster of plays is lush with big ideas, big stars and must-see events (if a few too many “didn’t we just see that” revivals). So let’s dig into the harvest feast…

"Grace". Image via O+M Co.

An Enemy of the People (September 27): Henrik Ibsen’s sturdy study of personal pressure and politics kicks things off just in time for election season. Class acts Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas play brothers, a mayor and a doctor, on opposite sides of an environmental disaster in the making. (Yeah, this was written when?)

Grace (October 4): As I’ve said before…Paul Rudd. I lerve him. Toss in the always magnetic Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) and my interest is more than peaked for this surreal comedy-drama about a couple’s plans for religious-themed motels and their less than faithful neighbor.

Running on Empty (October 9): Comedian and professional ranter Lewis Black brings his stand-up to Broadway for a week of performances.

Cyrano de Bergerac (October 11): The French war horse (no, not that one) gets trotted out for another display of witty banter, actorly showmanship and much-needed rhinoplasty. Tony-winner Douglas Hodge (La Cage aux Folles) takes on the title role in a Roundabout Theatre revival.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (October 13): The revelatory Steppenwolf production starring playwright (and seriously accomplished actor) Tracy Letts and the incomparable Amy Morton finally makes it to Broadway. Check my review from when I saw it at Arena Stage last year and tell me you aren’t a wee bit excited to see the Albee classic again.

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