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