Professional relationships are as disposable in our culture as goods on the shelves at Walmart, and so it is an especially happy occasion to report on the flowering of an artistic pairing, in this case of playwright J.T. Rogers and director Bartlett Sher. Their previous work together produced Blood and Gifts, Rogers’ tidal drama, spellbindingly staged by Sher, about the intersection of the personal and the political (or, more accurately, the blurring of any line between them) among an ebbing-and-flowing power mash-up of spies, warlords and U.S. and Soviet functionaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1980s; I wasn’t alone in naming it one of the best plays of 2011.
Now comes the extraordinary Oslo, Rogers’ riveting dramatization of another complex political tarantella that unfolded in secret before, in September 1993, stunning the world. That was when Bill Clinton presided at a Rose Garden ceremony in which Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestine Liberation Organization’s chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands after signing a historic peace accord. Oslo opened last summer in Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse; it’s moved upstairs to the Tony-eligible Vivian Beaumont, where it opened tonight. It’s even better the second time around.
We look back on that Rose Garden scene with bitter nostalgia for the blinding ray of hope that event promised but was destined to renege on. Irony is not, however, Rogers’ métier. His point in Oslo is to reveal — carefully, fully and sensitively — the back story of the accords and how a Norwegian couple with approximately zero political capital brought the two intransigent sides together at an ancient castle where, through a series of meetings virtually mined to explode or collapse, they forged an imperfect but tangible peace treaty.
The naively optimistic couple are Terje Rod-Larsen and Mona Juul. He’s an academic who has developed an interpersonal approach to conflict resolution that he’s convinced will work in advancing the cause of peace where everything else has failed. She’s a smart, ambitious cog in the office of the foreign ministry. That they are played by the insanely convincing and appealing Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle only underscores their determination against all odds, including diplomatic convention and protocol, a key factor in making this nearly three-hour evening pass swiftly.
Terje and Mona manage, through clandestine, coded telephone conversations, to bring together a foursome of Shakespearean ingenuity, intelligence and humor. From the PLO, the finance minister Ahmed Qurie (the elegant Anthony Azizi) and his fevered, slogan-spouting lieutenant Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani, coiled and intense). From the Israelis, insistent on protecting their plausible deniability over any negotiations with the declared enemy, two economics professors, the earthy, brilliant Yair Hirschfeld (Daniel Oreskes, as though born to this rich role) and the sedate Ron Pundak (Daniel Jenkins, all business).
The interconnections among the Norwegians can be a bit dizzying: Mona’s boss, the deputy foreign minister (also played by Jenkins) is married to Terje’s academic colleague (Henny Russell), and the couples are social friends. And as the negotiations surprisingly begin to suggest movement on both sides as the four negotiators thrust and parry and nurse unexpected friendships, the Israeli professors are replaced by government officials (Michael Aronov and Adam Dannheisser) and their Washington-based legal muscle (Joseph Siravo), threatening at first to torpedo the whole enterprise before succumbing, as their predecessors have, to a more human impulse.
This all sounds talk-talky, and it is – which is what makes Sher’s accomplishment with the text so compelling. As he showed earlier this season with his elegant staging of Romeo et Juliet at the Metropolitan Opera, Sher has always shown a willingness to take imaginative leaps that bring an engaging perspective to material – whether with revivals including the musicals The King and I and South Pacific, the plays of Clifford Odets and a heart-wrenching take on August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone — or new work such as this.
Rogers and Sher take the players in this comedy of terrors at face value, refusing to douse it in cynicism or the certainty of hindsight. We hardly need them to remind us of how soon the hopes of Oslo were dashed. Working with a first-rank group of artists (Michael Yeargan, the simple, suggestive sets; Donald Holder, the detailed lighting plan; Catherine Zuber, the spot-on costumes) they conspire every bit as persuasively as Terje and Mona to lend these unseen events enduring weight. Like the boy in the tree witnessing Admiral Perry’s meeting with the Japanese in Pacific Overtures, we have observed history in the making (and unlike the boy, we have heard it as well). For an all too brief moment, we can look back to that handshake in the Rose Garden and recall how thrilling hope can be.
To the list of the season’s great theater performances that won’t be eligible for recognition come Tony time, we must now add Bobby Cannavale, who is astonishing in Richard Jones’ revelatory revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, which is running only through April 22 at the Park Avenue Armory. Taking his cue, I suppose, from Chekhov, O’Neill called this brutal drama, first presented in 1922, a comedy “of ancient and modern life.” Cannavale is Yank, a proud, cocky coal stoker in the bowels of a ship, where he’s the gruff alpha male among the beefy, beer-swilling crew. When Mildred, the swank, slumming daughter of the ship’s owner gets a look at Yank, she has an attack of Anne Darrow-itis to his King Kong, calling him “a filthy beast.” Yank is much more than that; he prides himself a thinker as well as a bruiser, and Mildred’s denunciation unexpectedly shakes him to the core. He sets out on a harrowing nightlong journey through the swellsville of Park Avenue, demanding to know, “Where do I fit in?”
Could any play be timelier than this wrenching, tragic cry of an outsider looking for acceptance? Jones, a visionary director, and his team (Stewart Laing, design; Mimi Jordan Sherin, lighting; Sarah Angliss, music and sound; Aletta Collins and Thomas Schall, movement and fights) have turned the gaping field hall of the Armory into a blinding Expressionistic fury, something like a solar flare, with the audience in searing yellow bucket seats on rafters facing an enormous revolve on which the suggested set pieces – cages, mostly, for the stokers and others – roll into and out of view. There’s nothing realistic about it, except for the emotional truths of alienation and dehumanization that suffuse the events leading to the play’s inevitable, tragic climax.
Against this, and with the assist of a brilliant company, Cannavale gives a performance that’s utterly lacking in affectation, so completely open and raw, that by the end we’re left spent as well as rattled to our own core. Among the many things we seek in the communal act of theatergoing, finding out where we fit in ranks high. The answer O’Neill offered up in The Hairy Ape is devastating.