Village Voice 04.19.2017 : Page 48

48 April 19 April 25, 2017 VILLAGE Oslo brings peace negotiations to vivid life; Present Laughter ’s self-centered hero battles for peace at home Putting It Diplomatically BY MICHAEL FEINGOLD artlett Sher’s production of J.T. Rogers’s powerful and haunting Oslo features a constantly recur-ring image: a brightly lit open doorway at the back of an otherwise dark-ened stage. The doorway looks even more reassuringly bright on the spacious Vivian Beaumont stage, to which Oslo has been moved after its enthusiastic reception last summer in the smaller Newhouse Theater downstairs. We never see the room that light brightens, but we can still be grateful for it: Oslo deals with peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, a sub-ject on which signs of reassuring light were rare in 1993, when Rogers’s play takes place, and seem even rarer today. The glow of that distant light, from that room we never enter, embodies the distant hope of peace in a region ruled by strife. Oslo ’s story — how improbable back-channel talks in Norway burgeoned into the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Pal-estinian Authority — reveals that light can sometimes shine out, albeit transiently, in our pitch-dark world. The pathway toward that light was provided by Terje Rød-Larsen (Jefferson The torture of diplomacy: Jennifer Ehle and Je erson Mays ight for progress in Oslo . B Mays), a Norwegian sociologist who ran an Oslo think tank, the Fafo Institute for Applied Social Science, and whose wife, Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle), was on the staff of Norway’s Foreign Ministry. One of Larsen’s subordinates, Marianne Heiberg (Henny Russell), happened to be married to Juul’s boss, the incoming foreign minis-ter, Johan Jorgen Holst (played with ierce incisiveness by T. Ryder Smith). The com-edy that mercifully lightens Oslo ’s grim burden often stems from the collision of these solid, slightly stolid Norwegians and their northern climate with the more de-monstrative sensibilities of the Israelis and Palestinians they encounter. Larsen’s institute turned out to be an ideal place for the two sides to talk frankly to each other. For one thing, it wasn’t gov-ernmental: Norway’s Foreign Ministry felt no obligation to inform its allies that some unaccredited Israelis and Palestinians were sitting down together at a social-sci-ence institute. And they had, at the start, to be unaccredited: Under then-current Israeli law, any government of icial who even talked to a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization was committing a crime. Rogers’s script traces, with care-problems; in some respects, it barely even fully heightening tension, how the clan-addresses them. Violence continues — destine, seemingly futile talks acquire some of it, the epilogue reminds us, visited stature as the PLO’s inance minister, on those who created the accords by peo-Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi), and his as-ple supposedly on their own side. Rabin sociate, Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani) was assassinated by an Israeli extremist; — the latter a ire-breathing Communist — one of the Palestinian delegates was meet irst with two seemingly bumbling beaten nearly to death in a hallway in Gaza. Israeli economics professors (Daniel Jen-And the Norwegians, to whom Rogers kins and Daniel Oreskes), then with Uri gives the last word, are left wondering how Savir, general manager of Israel’s foreign much good they actually accomplished. ministry, an effusive igure rendered with And we wonder with them, which is Os-hilarious flamboyance by Michael Aronov. lo ’s inal validation as theater. Rogers has Savir’s presence gives the talks the of i-tidily stitched the history that preceded cial stamp for which the PLO has been the negotiations into the text; the Middle pressing. In a less expectable develop-East tensions that surround them come to ment, he and Qurie forge an unlikely life in vivid projections (by 59 Produc-friendship. (It turns out both men have tions) on the back wall of Michael Year-daughters named Maya.) Watching while gan’s largely bare setting. Sher achieves a stern, somber Qurie and skittery, gesticu-gallery of irst-rate performances, with lative Savir seek and ind common ground Mays and Ehle, caught in the middle, gulp-is Oslo ’s most heartening ing in anguish or swal-aspect. The heartbeat lowing their pride as the nearly dies with the arrival two opposing teams Oslo of Joel Singer (Jeff Still, veer from hostile harsh-Vivian Beaumont Theater replacing an ailing Joseph ness to cheerful cama-150 West 65th Street 212 239 6200 Siravo) — a tough-minded raderie and back again. lawyer under orders from Diplomacy, Oslo makes Israeli prime minister clear, is a tortuous pro-Present Laughter Yitzhak Rabin to scrutinize cess. But what world St. James Theatre and reword every clause in could we live in without 246 West 44th Street 877 250 2929 the draft agreement. Tem-it? A refusal to see any pers run high and conten-truth in the other side’s tions grow bitter; at its point of view leads only most fraught moments, to doomsday; diplo-Oslo can seem like a shouting quartet — macy leads, with excruciating slowness, to two Palestinians and two Israelis vocifer-that doorway from which emerges a hope-ating in irate counterpoint. ful gleam of light. But under the vociferation, something Diplomacy in personal relations, as meaningful is being built. By the end, practiced by Garry Essendine (Kevin when the agreement has so grown in im-Kline), the hero of Noël Coward’s durable portance that the two heads of state, Rabin 1942 comedy, Present Laughter , can also and Yasser Arafat (neither seen onstage), lead to pure silliness. In the London the-are signing it in public, we can believe, ater, Garry is a reigning superstar; every-fleetingly, that the diplomatic process has one in the fawning coterie around him value and meaning. It does not solve the wants a piece of his time, his affection, or at least his box of ice receipts. Only his fond yet disillusioned ex-wife (Kate Bur-ton) and his formidable, staunchly loyal secretary (Kristine Nielsen) know Garry’s epically tremulous ego well enough to let it alone. Others insist on poking the creature awake, with deliciously farcical results. Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s new produc-tion (St. James Theatre), the play’s ifth revival since New York irst saw it, with Clifton Webb as Garry, in 1946, builds an easygoing comic style that suits the script’s charmingly old-fashioned construction. (Stuelpnagel’s only serious mistake is the very noisy and unsuitably hard jazz played between scenes.) The audience’s laughter presents itself readily and smoothly be-cause the cast doesn’t push for it. Kline displays his total mastery of the vocalized pauses and slight shifts of body language that provoke constant chuckling, while Nielsen’s more acrid mode of comedy provides the big explosive laughs needed to vary the stream of chuckles. Burton, Reg Rogers, and Peter Francis James hit three key supporting roles dead center. Though not the most innovative nor the most spectacularly showy revival of Pres-ent Laughter New York has seen, this is the one that, for me, has best caught the play’s lighthearted essence. T. Charles Erickson

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