It hasn’t been a great year for movies, has it? Better stuff on TV, and lately some interesting theater for those of us lucky enough to live in or near New York City.
“This is the Middle East. They don’t do peace,” says a character at the beginning of “Oslo,” the diplomacy nail-biter now at the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center. The reality that the Oslo Accords did not bring what most people consider genuine peace to the region shadows this highly entertaining play, but playwright J.T. Rogers does not dwell on Oslo’s ultimate failure, nor on the tragic assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, a direct result of the agreement. Instead, Rogers fills the play with lots of gossip, colorful characterizations, and funny one-liners to create an amusing and suspenseful drama based on the historical event.
The Oslo Accords, the first peace deal between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, resulted in the 1993 iconic image of Israel’s prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, grimly shaking hands with a grinning PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in the Rose Garden, with President Bill Clinton hovering over them. “Oslo” the play concerns itself with the secret negotiations that led the participants to that historic moment, most of which took place in a secluded castle in Norway. Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays play the Norwegian couple who undertook the seemingly impossible task of bringing together representatives of the Israeli government and the PLO to work out a deal. As Terje Rad Larsen, a Norwegian sociologist and sometime diplomat, Mays is a perpetually bubbling spring of optimistic energy. Ehle plays his wife, Mona Juul, an official in Norway’s foreign ministry and the more cautious and level-headed of the duo.
Rogers focuses on the personal relationships between his characters, which gives him many opportunities for amusing anecdotes and intimate revelations. I don’t know if personal relationships are critical to successful diplomacy, but I’m sure that Rogers wouldn’t have a play without them. It is only through the sharing of the personal that we can see each other for who we truly are,” Larsen says at one point, which is certainly true for the characters in the play, and may be true for diplomacy as well. Without personal connections, we are doomed.
Larsen and Juul got to know several of the major players on the Arab side when she was stationed in Cairo and he did a sociological study of conditions in Gaza and the West Bank. Once he convinces her that they have a chance to bring the warring sides together, he reaches out to two Israeli economics professors (Daniel Oreskes and Daniel Jenkins) and Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi), the PLO finance minister, who arrives with his Marxist colleague Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani). These men hesitantly start to talk in a closed room. Only after they have made some progress, does Larsen pull in Yossi Beilin (Adam Dannheisser), an associate of Rabin. Then we’re off to the diplomatic races. The short scenes–64 in all–shift quickly from meeting to meeting and from one set of characters to another. A very effective set by Michael Yeargan–simple and clever–keeps the audience’s attention focused on what’s going on. Tables and chairs disappear and reappear as the action trots along, and director Bartlett Sher keeps the pacing tight, tight, tight. It makes diplomacy seem like fun, which is quite an accomplishment.
The resident director at Lincoln Center Theater, Sher originated the off-Broadway version at the smaller Mitzi E. Newhouse. Now the play has moved to the larger Broadway house upstairs, it is two acts rather than three, but still clocks in at close to three hours. You won’t be looking at your watch though. The excellent cast of 14 (who play 21 characters) keeps the action moving, and the story is gripping by definition. How the original actors learn to trust each other, at least somewhat, and then involve their bosses in the deal, all while juggling the overbearing Americans and soothing a hysterical Norwegian foreign minister makes for a great yarn. Rogers nods at the tragic dimensions of this neverending conflict in an epilogue at the end of the play, but that is not his overriding interest. Rather, he examines how difficult it is to overcome ancient fears and resentments, how intractable the opposing positions are, and how much optimism and faith are required to reach any diplomatic agreement. “Oslo” makes heroes out of the bureaucrats who slog onward day after day, learning about each other and each other’s cultures, trying incrementally to make the world a little safer and happier.
“A Quiet Passion”
Emily Dickinson was not so big on connecting. The great American poet lived her entire life in one small New England town, never married, or even left the house much. Terence Davies’ biopic about Dickinson, “A Quiet Passion,” stars a very fine Cynthia Nixon as the poet and tries hard to illuminate Dickinson’s inner life. Whether he succeeds is questionable. I didn’t feel I understood Dickinson any better than if I had just focused on her poems. She was a strong-minded girl, according to the film, and chafed against the misogyny of her society. She particularly struggled with her family’s dour Protestantism, and Davies shows her being accused by a teacher of being a ‘no-hoper’ while still at school. The movie is very handsomely shot, and Nixon is excellent in portraying Dickinson’s intellectual fire and increasing bitterness as she grows older and sicker. Jennifer Ehle is in this film too, giving a lovely performance as Emily’s beloved, if slightly goofy, sister Vinnie. For avid Dickinson fans, this will be a treat. For the rest of the world, maybe not so much.
“The Lost City of Z”
James Gray should have started his jungle adventure film “The Lost City of Z” about five years later than he does, when British explorer Percy Fawcett actually got into the South American jungle to map the border between Bolivia and Brazil. Instead, there is a lot of opening exposition about Fawcett’s stalled military career due to his lower-class origins and information about his wife and children, who live in the middle of nowhere. None of it is particularly interesting. When Fawcett finally gets to the Amazon, there is a lot of gorgeous photography, but the action remains episodic and there’s not that much adventure even then.
Based on David Grann’s nonfiction bestseller, the film tells the story of Fawcett’s journeys into remote areas where native peoples had never seen a European and his belief that he found evidence of an early, highly developed culture in the jungle. The Royal Geographic Society scoffs at the idea, but still funds further expeditions. Fawcett returned several times to the Amazon until his final disappearance in the 1920s. Gray postulates that Fawcett’s insight was not accepted because of blind racial superiority, but we never understand Fawcett well enough to see where his enlightened cultural relativism comes from. Charlie Hunnam looks great as Fawcett, but gives a wooden performance, and Sienna Miller as his wife has nothing to do but looked pained. Werner Herzog does exploration and obsession much better.