If there were a Tony Award for the theater season’s best color palette, Oslo would win hands down. From stormy blue-purples to dark, woody taupes, a range of gorgeous tones is worked through in Michael Yeargan’s imposingly spare scenery and Catherine Zuber’s immaculately tailored costumes.
What makes it more than simply beautiful—what turns color into theater—is its aptness for the subject. To the naked eye, the stage at the Vivian Beaumont is a gradient sea of murky grays, a perfect metaphor for the twists, turns, and uncertainties in J. T. Rogers’ complicated but compulsively entertaining script. Oslo resurrects—with considerable dramatic license—the real-life negotiations that, over a year and a half in 1992-93, led to a seemingly unimaginable handshake: between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.
Those negotiations were delicate, to say the least—and, as the world now knows, the nearly quarter-century since that moment has been a complicated sequence of partial victories and defeats. We watch Oslo with ironic awareness mixed with longing. Rogers’ script is exceptionally strong at capturing the complications and caprices that, at any given moment, either propelled the talks forward, or threatened to stop them cold. The play is not without its simplifications, clichés, and implausibilities (could waffles—even really delicious waffles—actually have turned the tide of diplomacy?). But it holds our attention for nearly three hours, and even manages to make the audience leave the theater feeling hopeful—no small feat for a work about the Middle East!
It’s not surprising, then, that Oslo is nominated for seven Tonys (in actual categories), including Best Play—which it was, I think, favored to win, at least until Lucas Hnath’s highly-praised A Doll’s House, Part 2 entered the ring. Still, Oslo has been much praised. But I wonder—how often will it be seen in the coming seasons?
I ask the question not to cast doubt on the quality of Rogers’ writing, though I admit to some mixed feelings about Oslo. Frankly, I would be happy to never again see a play where the characters directly address the audience, a shorthand mechanism to provide who, what, where and when kinds of detail. On the other hand, Oslo really is immensely complicated—I’m not sure it would be possible to embed all the necessary exposition into the action. For my money, the triumph here is Rogers’ superb orchestration—from intimate scenes to grand ones, involving virtually the entire company (14 actors, if I’ve counted right), always in fluid motion. (I was surprised—my only previous exposure to Rogers was through White People, a three-character play, told rather stiffly in monologues.)
The other triumph on view at the Beaumont is how superbly all the component parts come together. It’s the rare production where pretty much everything works flawlessly, starting with the theater itself—the three-quarter round configuration, with its vast stage is a challenge in some circumstances, but absolutely ideal of Oslo—the curved lines even reinforce the notion of a globe.
It’s also a reminder of how superb a director Bartlett Sher can be. He’s become the go-to person in New York for pretty much everything from small plays to operas, but I’ve found some of his recent work disappointing. Not here, though—watch the smoothness and ease with which he moves from scene to scene, and the marvelous way he places members of the cast along the sidelines, as if they are seated in a jury box. There’s not a weak link in the cast: Michael Aronov, Jennifer Ehle, and Jefferson Mays are nominated for Tony Awards, and they’re all terrific—but so is everybody else. (In particular, I wish Anthony Azizi and Daniel Oreskes had also been recognized.) And, of course, there’s the gorgeous design.
It all starts with Rogers’ script—but the extraordinary effect of Oslo is as a production, with all these elements coming together. I can’t even guess how much rehearsal time was involved, nor how many unseen artists contributed.
There’s a price tag to this, of course. And that’s why I fear that Oslo, whose subject matter would be ideally suited to high-minded regional theaters, will be beyond their reach. It could be done on a smaller proscenium stage with simpler scenery; perhaps with some other economies, as well. But 21 characters and a three-hour running time will be prohibitive for most.
But I do bet that Oslo will soon make it across the pond—the Royal National Theatre in London seems made-to-order for it—the layout of the Olivier stage is even similar to the Beaumont. More important, they specialize in large format, contemporary works, and they can afford to provide the rehearsals and resources Oslo needs. They are, after all, a “national theater.” If only we had one.
Oslo plays through July 2 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center. For more information, visit the website.