Cre­at­ing art from an un­likely source

J.T. Rogers’s Tony Award-nom­i­nated play ‘Oslo’ mines com­pelling drama from the forg­ing of po­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ships

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PETER MARKS peter.marks@wash­post.com

new york — He’s what you might call the perfect Washington play­wright, a man of wide and deep cu­rios­ity who takes on com­plex global mat­ters in a voice pitched for an au­di­ence that de­mands its the­ater be as en­ter­tain­ing as it is so­phis­ti­cated.

“The po­lit­i­cal act of my work, I would ar­gue, is to ex­pand out­ward who and what is be­ing dis­cussed on the Amer­i­can stage,” J.T. Rogers says. “Not be­cause I have a civic duty to do it, but be­cause I think it’s f---ing in­ter­est­ing.”

That kind of en­thu­si­asm no doubt arises, in part, from the child­hood the 48-year-old drama­tist spent in di­verse lo­cales such as Mis­souri, Man­hat­tan’s East Vil­lage and ru­ral Malaysia, where his fa­ther, Marvin, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor, did re­search. And his col­or­ful char­ac­ter­i­za­tion cer­tainly is also ap­pli­ca­ble to his lat­est play, “Oslo,” which was nom­i­nated Tues­day for seven Tony Awards, in­clud­ing best play.

It also eas­ily qual­i­fies as one of the most riv­et­ing ex­pe­ri­ences of the the­ater sea­son. Al­though an ear­lier play of his, “The Over­whelm­ing,” about the Rwanda geno­cide, was fea­tured in 2009 at the Con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Theatre Fes­ti­val in Shep­herd­stown, W.Va., Rogers, to his con­ster­na­tion, hasn’t had any of his full-length plays pro­duced by a ma­jor D.C. com­pany.

Maybe that will change with the suc­cess of his Broad­way de­but via “Oslo,” a play that un­rav­els the knotty story of the un­likely pair of Nor­we­gians who, in 1993, man­aged to get Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans to a se­cret bar­gain­ing table and ham­mer out an agree­ment to be­gin cre­at­ing a Pales­tinian state. Hav­ing started as a Lin­coln Cen­ter The­ater com­mis­sion work­shopped by a Philadel­phia com­pany, Play-Penn, that even­tu­ally made its way to the cen­ter’s Tony-el­i­gi­ble Vi­vian Beau­mont The­ater, “Oslo” is that rare new play that spins into art the painstak­ing process of achiev­ing con­sen­sus.

Theater­go­ers leave the Beau­mont, and the 14 ac­tors who, in some cases, dou­ble or triple in roles, feel­ing re­freshed by the spirit of the play’s valiant cen­tral char­ac­ters, Terje Rod-Larsen and Mona Juul, por­trayed by the Tony-nom­i­nated Jef­fer­son Mays and Jen­nifer Ehle. Plays con­cerned with geopo­lit­i­cal bar­gain­ing ses­sions are dif­fi­cult to en­liven — wit­ness Arena Stage’s trou­ble with an­other play about Mid­dle East ac­cords, the all-too-dry “Camp David” — so the fact that the nearly three-hour “Oslo” whizzes by in what feels like two is es­pe­cially re­mark­able. The ef­fect is at­trib­ut­able in part to the fleet use of the stage by di­rec­tor Bartlett Sher (also Tony-nom­i­nated) and a sto­ry­telling struc­ture built on short su­per­charged scenes. More than 60 of them, ac­tu­ally.

“I like to call it an in­tel­lec­tual thriller,” says Sher, who staged it in Lin­coln Cen­ter’s smaller, off Broad­way space, the Mitzi Ne­w­house The­ater, last year, be­fore the com­pany de­cided to move it up­stairs to the 1,200-seat Beau­mont. Or, as Rogers puts it: “It’s a story about peo­ple who have to sit across from their en­emy, and are changed by that.”

It’s just the sort of sce­nario in which Rogers spe­cial­izes. Ear­lier

“It’s a story about peo­ple who have to sit across from their en­emy, and are changed by that.” J.T. Rogers, “Oslo” play­wright

plays such as “Mada­gas­car,” set in Rome, and “Blood and Gifts,” which fo­cuses on a CIA agent work­ing with Afghans against the Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion, are globe-trot­ting af­fairs whose sub­jects more of­ten par­al­lel those raised in Bri­tish plays, by writ­ers such as David Hare and Tom Stop­pard. No sur­prise then, that his work has been cham­pi­oned in Lon­don, where Sher di­rected “Blood and Gifts” and where “Oslo” is also due to be staged.

Al­though Rogers grew up want­ing to be an ac­tor, his in­ter­est shifted to play­writ­ing while he was an un­der­grad­u­ate at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where Ehle was a fel­low stu­dent at the time. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t get­ting some­thing out of act­ing,” Rogers says of his tran­si­tion to drama­tist. “But the ex­pe­ri­ence of writ­ing and see­ing the play hap­pen­ing — it was like, after hav­ing baked the whole pie, hav­ing just a slice was not sat­is­fy­ing.”

Based on real peo­ple and events, “Oslo” re­volves around a dar­ing act of co-opt­ing. It takes place mostly in the Nor­we­gian cas­tle where Terje, (pro­nounced TIE-ah), an aca­demic, and Mona, a for­eign min­istry of­fi­cial, man­age to lure the fi­nance min­is­ter of the Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion and, ini­tially, low-level, un­of­fi­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Is­raeli govern­ment to clan­des­tine en­coun­ters. The goal is to jump­start ne­go­ti­a­tions stale­mated in Geneva. Soon, as Terje’s strat­egy gets trac­tion, and the en­emy sides be­come ac­quainted and grad­u­ally warm up to each other, the talks make progress, and the Is­raelis send in higher-level ne­go­tia­tors.

The agree­ments reached in Oslo were memo­ri­al­ized in a White House sign­ing cer­e­mony in Septem­ber 1993, at­tended by Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Yitzhak Rabin, PLO Chair­man Yasser Arafat and President Bill Clin­ton. His­tory records that the ef­forts did not end the hos­til­i­ties. Still, Rogers has com­posed a play less con­cerned with the re­sults than the pro­found act of seek­ing them, and what that pur­suit means to the men who gather around the table and to Terje and Mona, too. As sym­bol­ized by the or­di­nary table that rises out of the floor of Michael Year­gan’s set, the thor­oughly mun­dane rit­ual of forg­ing re­la­tion­ships rises to the level of some­thing sa­cred.

A friend­ship ini­ti­ated “Oslo,” too. Sher got to know Rod-Larsen after he and Juul moved to New York, and their chil­dren at­tended mid­dle school to­gether. In 2012, Sher, di­rect­ing an ear­lier play by Rogers, “Blood and Gifts,” ar­ranged for the play­wright to meet Rod-Larsen, who was by then work­ing for the United Na­tions. Over drinks at P.J. Clarke’s in Man­hat­tan, the idea for a play was hatched.

“It’s like that lit­tle ‘ping’ that goes off,” Rogers re­calls, about hear­ing from Rod-Larsen how the Oslo ac­cords came into be­ing. “I was stunned, be­cause I knew noth­ing about the ‘back chan­nel.’ ”

Ac­cord­ing to Paul Meshe­jian, artis­tic di­rec­tor of Play-Penn, a play de­vel­op­ment group that worked with Rogers on “The Over­whelm­ing” and “Blood and Gifts,” the play­wright came to Philadel­phia with the half-fin­ished Lin­coln Cen­ter com­mis­sion in fall 2014 and while there com­pleted the first full draft of “Oslo.” A read­ing, with ac­tors at mu­sic stands, ran four hours — ev­i­dence of the vol­umes of re­search and in­ter­views Rogers had amassed.

“Re­mark­ably, not a soul left the the­ater,” Meshe­jian said by email. “It was, sim­ply put, thrilling.”

And ul­ti­mately, thanks to Rogers’s con­certed ef­forts, shorter.

Mays and Ehle par­tic­i­pated in later work­shops. They would have op­por­tu­ni­ties to meet Rod-Larsen and Juul as they fleshed out their per­for­mances. Mays, a Tony win­ner for Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife,” builds the por­trait of an in­tense pusher of en­velopes, a man who isn’t fully cog­nizant of the feath­ers he is ruf­fling. “He’s quite a show­man,” Mays says of Rod-Larsen, “brash and au­da­cious. He’s sin­gu­lar for a Nor­we­gian, hav­ing risen from rather lowly be­gin­nings in a strat­i­fied so­ci­ety. So he’s risen above his sta­tion and con­structed this Pan-Euro­pean per­son­al­ity.”

Ehle, a two-time Tony win­ner her­self, for Tom Stop­pard’s “The Coast of Utopia” and a re­vival of his “The Real Thing,” pro­vides a nec­es­sary core of warmth to Mona, a char­ac­ter, she says, who is in­spired more by the Mona in Rogers’s script than the ac­tual woman.

“You can’t help but feel a re­spon­si­bil­ity to ex­plore who the real per­son is,” Ehle says, adding, how­ever, that the play doesn’t in­tend au­di­ences to see the ac­tors as pro­vid­ing im­per­son­ations.

“Peo­ple who’ve come to see the play, who were there, say it isn’t ex­actly what hap­pened, but it is the spirit of what hap­pened,” Ehle says. “And I think that is what Jef­fer­son and I as Terje and Mona try to do. We are rep­re­sent­ing the spirit of th­ese peo­ple.”

Oslo, by J.T. Rogers. Di­rected by Bartlett Sher. Tick­ets, $87-$147. At the Vi­vian Beau­mont The­ater, 150 W. 65th St., New York. Visit lct.org or call 212-239-6200.

T CHARLES ERICK­SON PHOTOGRAPHY

Cast mem­bers of “Oslo,” now play­ing at the Vi­vian Beau­mont The­ater at New York’s Lin­coln Cen­ter. “Oslo” was nom­i­nated for seven Tony Awards last week, in­clud­ing best play. It tells the story of two Nor­we­gians who, in 1993, man­aged to get Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans to a se­cret bar­gain­ing table to ham­mer out an agree­ment to cre­ate a Pales­tinian state.

J.T. Rogers, the au­thor of “Oslo.” Rogers orig­i­nally wanted to be an ac­tor, but he be­came more in­ter­ested in writ­ing plays as an un­der­grad­u­ate at the North Carolina School of the Arts.

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