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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Small Mouth Sounds

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July 19, 2016: “Small Mouth Sounds,” a quiet gem of a play by Bess Wohl that was first seen Off Broadway at Ars Nova last year, has been restaged at the Pershing Square Signature Center with all its wit, compassion and sparkle fully intact. The sound of silence onstage has rarely made such sweet music. For much of the play’s 100 minutes, most of the characters do not speak. It takes place at a weeklong spiritual retreat where silence is enjoined, although Ms. Wohl’s ingenuity and the sympathetic direction of Rachel Chavkin allow us to read the bleeding hearts of the characters with a lucidity that no amount of dialogue could improve upon. The men and women assembling for a psychic tuneup are a nicely varied bunch. At the head of the class would seem to be the yoga rock star Rodney (Babak Tafti), handsome, bearded, decked out in Buddhist-flavored clothing and prone to twisting his body into elaborate poses. This mildly prickles his assigned roommate, the slightly insecure Ned, who alone among the characters is given a self-explanatory monologue. He deserves a chance to unload. A few years ago poor Ned, who is played with a plangent ache by the terrific Brad Heberlee, fell when rock climbing and shattered his skull. While he was in and out of the hospital, his wife began sleeping with his brother. And it got worse from there. Ned cannot even find peace at this retreat. He takes a quiet shine to the grumpy Alicia (Zoë Winters), who is perhaps the least spiritually evolved — or enthusiastic — of the participants. Reeling from a breakup, she taps out angry texts on her phone whenever she can find a signal. To Ned’s dismay, his attempts to cozy up to her are sidelined when Rodney, more obviously a candidate for hot rebound sex, gets in the way. Also hitting relationship speed bumps recently are Joan (Marcia DeBonis) and Judy (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), committed partners who nevertheless are feeling some understandable strains. Judy, we learn, has recently learned she has cancer. In one of the play’s most tender passages, she has a moment of communion with Jan (Max Baker); wordlessly, we learn that he is still mourning a painful loss. Although the stage at the Signature Center is modestly larger than the one at Ars Nova, there’s no diminishment of the play’s intimacy, which is enhanced by the staging. Most of the action takes place on a rectangular playing space, with the audience seated in a few rows on either side of it. Only when they are receiving instruction from the leader of the retreat — who remains unseen but is voiced with hilariously oily piety by Jojo Gonzalez — do the characters assemble on chairs at one end of the stage. Although Mr. Baker, Ms. Bernstine and Ms. Winters are new to “Small Mouth Sounds,” they inhabit their characters with the same full-hearted openness that marks the work of the actors who are returning to their roles. In a summer of disturbing discord and violence, it’s heartening to renew acquaintance with a play that leaves you moved, refreshed and, yes, maybe even a little enlightened.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Privacy

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July 18, 2016: Grim tidings are spread with great cheer in “Privacy,” James Graham and Josie Rourke’s perky investigation into the consequences of living your life online. This London-born production from 2014 — which opened in an updated, Americanized version (“Brexit” jokes!) at the Public Theater on Monday night — stars a charmingly woebegone Daniel Radcliffe as a writer who has conflicted feelings about all his relationships, but especially the one with the internet. The presence of the man who played Harry Potter isn’t the only reason “Privacy” has become one of New York’s hottest tickets. Viewed as a play, it is neither as profound as it aspires to be nor even entirely cohesive. But it ingeniously recreates that most venerable of entertainments, the magic show, in a form ideally suited to the second decade of the 21st century. Like the work of celebrated prestidigitators (like David Copperfield, Penn & Teller) and mentalists (Derren Brown, the Amazing Kreskin), “Privacy” dazzles and baffles by seeming to know exactly what selected audience members are thinking — and who they are, what they’ve done and where they’ve been. And like such traditional fare, this show fully intends to make you say “wow!” again and again. But “Privacy” goes one painful, enlightening step further by always putting the “ow!” in “wow!” That’s because the secret-wranglers onstage — embodied by a vivacious supporting cast — are not relying principally on human intuition or hidden accomplices or bait-and-switch techniques. No, they can look deep into what passes for your soul these days because they have access to your smartphones. [ “Privacy” is part comedy, part documentary, part lecture-demonstration and part fourth-wall smasher ] In other words, Big Brother and company have replaced the dashing figures who pull rabbits out of hats. Though the play quotes the phrase “be not afeard” from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” the purpose of “Privacy” is to scare you silly, through only seemingly silly means. By the way, one of the folks who recites those words happens to be Edward J. Snowden — the exiled, whistle-blowing computer whiz and former National Security Agency contractor — whose appearance here is made possible by the double-edged technology that gives “Privacy” its style and substance. I think it’s O.K. to mention Mr. Snowden. (His videotaped appearance in “Privacy” has already been reported.) Like most magic shows, this one ends with a statement from its star (Mr. Radcliffe), asking that we not give away its manifold surprises for future audiences. Since one of the main points of the evening is that no secret is keepable anymore, this feels like a sadly quixotic request, a paradox that Mr. Graham’s script doesn’t exploit as dizzyingly as it might. But to avoid being stigmatized as a spoiler, I will honor Mr. Radcliffe’s plea. Which doesn’t leave me with a whole lot to talk about, except in abstract terms, and the coolest tricks in “Privacy” involve very detailed specifics. Like personal specifics. Like your personal specifics. There is a reason that, for once in a New York theater, you are encouraged to leave your smartphones on throughout the show. Heck, this production even provides free Wi-Fi for you. All the better to see you with, my dears. I’m making “Privacy” sound creepier and more compelling than it ultimately is. As written by Mr. Graham (the author of the terrific British Parliament docudrama “This House”) and Ms. Rourke (the artistic director of Donmar Warehouse in London, where “Privacy” originated), this production is respectful about never crossing certain lines with those watching it, though it promises that it could if it wanted to. The lost soul portrayed by Mr. Radcliffe, known simply as the Writer, is treated less gently. When the play begins, he has just ended a relationship with someone to whom he refers with the gender-neutral pronoun of “they.” Even speaking to his new psychiatrist, Josh Cohen (Reg Rogers), the Writer is coy about “they” — who appears to have walked out precisely because the Writer is so withholding of his innermost self. Being English, he says, he is an instinctively private person, with “a phobia of being known.” In an effort to break down those self-isolating walls, he crosses the Atlantic to New York City, where his ex now resides. (It turns out to be a he, for the record.) Little does the Writer know, at this point, how completely known he is already, simply because he uses his smartphone and laptop. On hand to edify him are a host of fantasy versions of real people who embody different sides of the argument on public versus private selves. Such academic cultural commentators as Sherry Turkle, Jill Lepore and Daniel Solove are introduced to debate the pros and cons of virtual communality. (The real Ms. Turkle, drolly played here by Rachel Dratch, will be participating in a “Privacy” forum at the Public on Aug. 1.) Retailing entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley executives; representatives of government surveillance agencies; politicians and journalists (among them, Ewen MacAskill, a reporter for the London publication The Guardian who helped break the Snowden story) — they also appear to explain how completely we expose ourselves every time we log on. They are brought to chipper, slightly cartoonish life by a cast appealingly rounded out by De’Adre Aziza, Raffi Barsoumian and Michael Countryman. The technical team — which includes Lucy Osborne (sets), Richard Howell (lighting) and Duncan McLean (projections) — adroitly conjures a world in which what we see on tiny screens seems to grow into three dimensions, even as so-called real life flattens out. The parts of the show I can’t talk about — the many audience participation sequences — are both its giddiest and most sobering. “Privacy” doesn’t provide much material that hasn’t been rehashed many times in newspaper and magazine (and blog and vlog) essays. It can feel rather like one of those middle school instructional films that use a likable animated creature (a talking dinosaur or skeleton, maybe) to keep its distractible young viewers hooked. The scene in which I felt most engaged, confused and affected involves little techno sleight of hand, just a very deft performer (that would be Mr. Radcliffe) treading water in an improvisational sequence. Or was it? I can say no more. But it’s a relief to be able to report that “Privacy” shines brightest when it comes down to a single actor plying centuries-old tricks of his trade.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: War Paint

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July 19, 2016: CHICAGO — For a musical that covers so many years — and so many shades of lipstick — “War Paint” never really seems to move forward. This portrait of battling cosmetic titans, which opened on Monday at the Goodman Theater here starring a deliciously paired Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, doesn’t just show its whole hand from the get-go; it does so as eagerly as a debutante with a fabulous new manicure. Written by Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics), and directed by Michael Greif, “War Paint” lets you know exactly what it is and where it’s going (or not going) in a prologue, so you can decide right away if it’s your cup of skin toner. Seated on opposite sides of the stage at vanity tables are two middle-aged women in peignoirs appraising themselves in the mirror and applying the ritualistic goo of the show’s title — that is, their makeup. They are, it turns out, Helena Rubinstein (1872-1965) and Elizabeth Arden (1881-1966), two masters of self-invention who ruled the American beauty market during the mid-20th century. As embodied here, these glamorous gals look as joltingly different as, well, Ms. LuPone (playing Rubinstein) and Ms. Ebersole (Arden), marquee Broadway performers who have dominated many a musical, though in utterly dissimilar styles. (For the record, they are both in top form here.) But wait a minute. The Polish-born Rubinstein may have the exotic and imperious countenance of an aging silent movie vamp (crossed with Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blücher in “Young Frankenstein”), while the perky, blond Arden could pass as Beaver Cleaver’s mother. And throughout the show, David Korins’s set, which conjures period opulence with efficient minimalism, and Catherine Zuber’s luxe costumes (not minimalist at all) underscore the gap between its leading divas. Yet don’t these women have a lot in common, too? After all, they’re singing the same tune and sharing lyrics about the difficulty of being women who must put on masks to face the world. Though they may be born to clash, Rubinstein and Arden are, as the script has it, “sisters in suffering.” It will take them and two and a half more hours of similarly symmetrical scenes, usually played in direct, crosscutting counterpoint, to confess their bond to each other. (The show’s rhythms can be boiled down to: They’re totally different! No, they’re totally alike!) The production seems to have taken to heart one of Arden’s marketing mantras to her sales staff: “Remember girls! Repetition makes reputation.” The title of the opening number is “A Woman’s Face,” which also happens to be the name of a 1941 film directed by George Cukor and starring Joan Crawford. This is appropriate, since “War Paint” brings to mind many movies of that period, hen flicks (its stars were too regal to be chicks) like “The Women” and “Old Acquaintance,” in which female antagonists in to-die-for dresses did fierce battle with one another, tooth and clawed epigram. The creators of “War Paint” appreciate the pulpy appeal of such cinematic fare, in which exaggerated artificial surfaces and quippy badinage conceal ravenous ambition and broken hearts. But “War Paint” also pauses to question the social values of a system that forces women to conceal their imperfections. Or as a lyric from the end of the show asks: “Did we make women freer, or did we enslave them?” It is safe to assume that such sociological debate is not what will hold the attention of audiences for “War Paint,” which has been selling fast in Chicago and is possibly bound for Broadway. No, that would be the sight and sound of Ms. LuPone and Ms. Ebersole, both two-time Tony winners, as their characters pursue rigid parallel paths for four decades, never actually meeting but always emulously aware of each other. They are, as another character wildly describes them, “locked in a malevolent tango, sailing over a cliff.” Arden on Rubinstein: “Royalty? She’s as common as a cabbage.” Rubinstein on Arden: “Pedigreed? Ha! She — what? — stepped off the Pilgrim boat in her Chanel pumps? I know the truth, Harry. She’s Canadian!” (Ms. LuPone, as you may imagine, milks the comic potential of Rubinstein’s Polish accent and malapropisms for all they’re worth.) Such zingers — along with more accounts of the packaging and marketing of cosmetics than you surely ever expected from a musical — punctuate scenes in which both women face the same obstacles. These include congressional hearings on the misrepresentation of their products, social rejection, World War II (a sequence that flirts with bad taste), the advent of vulgar hard-sell advertising (rendered in a “Mad Men”-style production number snappily choreographed by Christopher Gattelli) and the cruel march of changing times. They also can’t hold onto their guys, who in this version are Arden’s husband (and business manager), Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), and Rubinstein’s business manager, Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills), who is gay, snarky and adoring. (You may draw parallels with part of this show’s target demographic only if you choose.) Played with hangdog miens by the gifted Mr. Dossett and Mr. Sills, these men soon betray their bosses and switch sides. Please note that though the musical was inspired by the biography “War Paint” by Lindy Woodhead and the documentary film “The Powder & the Glory,” the script by Mr. Wright (“I Am My Own Wife”) telescopes, rearranges and modifies history in the service of blunt thematic tidiness. As a study in contrasts, “War Paint” quickly turns monochrome. Fortunately, Mr. Frankel and Mr. Korie’s score plays knowingly to its stars’ respective strengths, with swirling, lyrical melodies for Arden and jagged, Kurt Weillian ones for Rubinstein. Ms. Ebersole — who collaborated previously with the “War Paint” team to Tony-winning brilliance in “Grey Gardens” — brings not just enameled chipperness but also a startling glimpse of genuine, self-surprising pain to her singing. Her climactic solo of reckoning, “Pink,” is a knockout. So is Ms. LuPone’s parallel number (you can imagine the show’s writers dividing up the star turns very carefully). Of course, these women each have their own sui generis approaches to a song. Ms. LuPone, an idiosyncratic belter, wrestles melodies to the mat in freestyle, while Ms. Ebersole is a sparkling precisionist. It is all the more surprising that on the occasions they sing together, their voices flow into a single powerful, poignant stream. Like the dominating women they portray, these actresses have more in common than you might think. That includes a blessed gift for finding emotional substance, and animating variety, in what is otherwise a frozen diptych. And no, that is not the name of a spa treatment.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Okina and Hagoromo

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July 14, 2016: Most art forms evolve and change radically over the years. A French painting created today is unlikely to resemble one created in the 18th century. But the genre of Japanese theater known as Noh has hewed to traditional texts and performance styles for centuries, so that a Noh performance you see today resembles, to a remarkable degree, a performance in the 14th or 15th century. This form, which combines dance, music and drama, is performed primarily by specialists from families who have been steeped in its traditions for generations. The Kanze Noh Theater, one of a handful of the remaining traditional Noh companies, is presenting six performances encompassing seven plays through Sunday at the Rose Theater as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Each performance includes two classic Noh plays, and some also include kyogen, which are presented between plays as comic interludes. Immersing yourself in the slow rhythms of Noh can take some time; it’s best to prepare by setting aside your expectations of modern Western theater entirely; otherwise, boredom and puzzlement will await. Noh plays are spare and simple, performed on a bare stage traditionally made of Japanese cypress, with just an image of a pine tree adorning the back wall. (Missing from the presentation at the Rose Theater, perhaps for sightline reasons, is the roof that normally covers the main playing area.) Movement is stylized: The actors shuffle onstage in stockinged feet that seem to move by the smallest increments, sliding forward at a rhythmic pace that becomes weirdly hypnotic. The opening performance on Wednesday included “Okina,” one of the oldest extant Noh plays, and “Hagoromo” (“The Robe of Feathers”), about a fisherman who encounters a mysterious maiden after discovering a robe hanging from a tree. “Okina” is really more a ritual than anything else — minimalist in terms of drama, even by the spare standards of Noh. A black box is brought onstage, followed by the lead player, in this case Kiyokazu Kanze, the 26th “grandmaster” of the family that created the genre some 700 years ago. His character, after whom the play is named, eventually dons a mask removed from the box, becoming a god who performs a ritual dance that “invokes omens of longevity and prays for peace.” Or so the program indicates; it’s impossible for modern audiences to glean this from the performance alone. (Supertitles in English provide a basic synopsis.) Still, even if the performance communicates little in terms of literal meaning, one can admire the rigor with which Mr. Kanze and his fellow performers enact this peculiar rite, moving their limbs and flourishing fans with striking precision. Behind the central performers are seated musicians — four drummers, who also chant, and a flutist — as well as a chorus, which performs with a similar singular dedication. Music and movement are sometimes in sync, but mostly independent of each other. After Mr. Kanze has concluded his rite, another character, Sambaso, a “harbinger of good harvest” played by Yasutaro Yamamoto, performs a stomping dance and eventually dons his own black mask to continue the dance. “Hagoromo” bears at least a trace of plot. The fisherman who discovers the robe of feathers, played by Tsuneyoshi Mori, is actually a supporting player who mainly observes the action when he encounters the Angel, who explains that only if she retrieves the robe can she ascend once more to heaven. In return she performs an elaborate dance clad in the robe. As this character, Yoshinobu Kanze (female roles are still often played by men in Noh theater) moves with remarkable grace and delicacy, using the fabric of his elaborate costume almost as an extension of his body. Indeed the billowing, voluminous costumes of the principal performers, beautifully patterned and carefully folded around the body, are among the most alluring aspects of the art form. In the context of Noh’s rigorous minimalism, the care with which they are manipulated becomes part of the drama. The flipping of a sleeve over an arm takes on a sudden dramatic urgency. And during the intervals of Mr. Kanze’s dance in “Okina,” attendants seated behind him carefully and decorously rearranged the hem of his garment so it would hang in perfect scallops. What this signified, I couldn’t say, but small details like this leave a singular, mysterious afterglow in the memory.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Rose Tattoo

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July 10, 2016: Marisa Tomei, who stars in the Williamstown Theater Festival’s buoyant new production of Tennessee Williams’s “The Rose Tattoo,” may at first blush appear to be literally a few sizes too small for the feisty, fiery central role of Serafina Delle Rose. In describing the character in the text, Williams uses the word “plump” not once, not twice, but three times — and tosses in a “voluptuous” for good measure. He famously wrote the role for the great (and ample-framed) Anna Magnani, who played it in the movie version and won an Oscar for it. But while Ms. Tomei (an Oscar winner herself) may have the svelte figure of a fashion model — dressed in a chic 1950s belted dress in the opening scene, she almost looks like one — inside that slender body is an actor capable of unleashing all the pain and passion that define this lively if not always lovable character. “The Rose Tattoo,” first produced on Broadway in 1951, does not rank among Williams’s most indelible works. It is, at heart, a romantic comedy — a genre we do not usually associate with Williams, the great dramatic poet of heroines damned, doomed or deluded. But while it does not have the penetrating power or the tenderness of feeling of his great dramas, it retains an indisputable lively charm, and in Serafina, whose worshipful adoration of her husband almost destroys her, Williams created yet another memorable portrait of a woman in extremis. The new production, inventively directed by Trip Cullman, trims the text (wisely), eliminating a few minor characters. (It also adds a few snatches of Italian song, nicely performed by Lindsay Mendez, in keeping with the play’s almost musical textures.) The play is set in and around Serafina’s humble home, where she makes a living as a seamstress, helping support her truck driver husband and their daughter, the teenage Rosa (Gus Birney). The Delle Rose ménage is here presented semi-abstractly, without walls and with its jumble of furniture sinking into the sand of the Louisiana Gulf Coast town where the play takes place. The set designer Mark Wendland has provided a striking video backdrop (the projections are by Lucy Mackinnon) depicting waves lapping at the shore — initially a little distracting, but in keeping with the play’s theme of time and life ticking away as Serafina withdraws from the world after her (unseen) husband, Rosario, is killed in the first act. This calamity all but undoes Serafina. Initially a proudly preening woman, she is called “the baronessa” by her fellow Italian-American locals, semi-mockingly (Barbara Rosenblat excels as a stern but loyal Assunta). Serafina boasts almost obsessively about her sexually fulfilling marriage, and after his death enters a cave of deep mourning from which she has no desire to emerge. Three years on, she has devolved from a proud matron into a slattern who slouches in and out of her house in a slip, scandalizing the neighborhood. Ms. Tomei marks Serafina’s striking transformation with ease, the radiance fading from her face as Serafina’s ebullient spirit drains away into a bitter rancor that sours even her relationship with her daughter. Darkening her distress even further is the terrified suspicion that the gossip she overheard from a couple of frustrated clients (provided with nice spunk by Medina Senghore and Portia), suggesting that her husband had been unfaithful, may be true. When these doubts steal into Serafina’s heart, we can read them with painful clarity on Ms. Tomei’s confused face. Rosa, played a little too shrilly by Ms. Birney, has recently met a young sailor at a school dance, Jack Hunter (the excellent Will Pullen), and while he’s the picture of young innocence, Rosa scornfully attacks him as a predator. Ms. Tomei’s performance, rich in Italianate color (if, admittedly, lacking the bone-deep realism of Magnani’s), is also sparked with sardonic humor, never more so than in the scene in which she subjects a bewildered Jack to a verbal hiding. When he almost shamefacedly confesses he’s a virgin, she scoffs: “You? A sailor?” And later asks with disgust, “Why do they make them Navy pants so tight?” While the subplot involving Rosa’s ill treatment at the hands of her unhinged mother provides some enlivening humor, it also feels like, well, a subplot. Only when Serafina meets Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Christopher Abbott), like her husband a truck driver, who stumbles into her house one day after an altercation with an oily salesman (Darren Pettie, nicely nasty), does “The Rose Tattoo” gain some emotional traction. Without turning him into an operatic caricature, Mr. Abbott, seen on “Girls” and Off Broadway in Annie Baker’s “John,” among other plays, gives an impassioned and sexually charged performance as the instantly smitten Alvaro, who gradually wears down Serafina’s pious devotion to the memory of her husband. Even when she divines his deception — the rose tattoo he displays was obtained only after he learned about Rosario’s own — Alvaro’s impulsive ardor, and his naked need for a woman to love him as he can love her, melts Serafina’s frozen heart. If you’ve become invested in her suffering, it may melt yours too. “The Rose Tattoo” does not provide any of the anguished catharses of Williams’s celebrated dramas, but there’s something refreshing in the play’s bright colors and Serafina’s amusingly overripe emotional extravagance. It’s not often, after all — strike that: it’s virtually never — that we leave a Tennessee Williams play with a light heart.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Oslo

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July 11, 2016: The Aaron Burr of the musical “Hamilton” — who stews over being shut out of pivotal closed-door conferences — isn’t the only person who wants to be in the room where it happens. It’s hard not to envy the witnesses to history in the making and to imagine attending conferences, Zelig-like, in Versailles, Vienna or Potsdam. J. T. Rogers shares that instinct. Unlike most of you, he has acted on it. Having combined investigative zeal and theatrical imagination with insider access, Mr. Rogers now invites you into the chambers where the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization were forged during nine fraught months in 1993. Even if you never thought about traveling to Norway, you’ll probably want to visit the inevitably titled “Oslo,” the absorbing drama by Mr. Rogers that opened on Monday night at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. At a very full three hours, with many international stops, this play is long and dense enough to make you wonder if you should have packed an overnight bag. Yet what Mr. Rogers and the director, Bartlett Sher, have created is a streamlined time machine, comfortably appointed enough to forestall jet lag. Centering on one Norwegian couple who improbably initiated the diplomatic back channel that led to the epochal meeting of the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the P.L.O leader Yasir Arafat at the White House, “Oslo” affectingly elicits the all-too-human factor in the weary machinations of state policy. That couple is Mona Juul, then an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, and her husband, Terje Rod-Larsen, who was director of the Fafo Institute for Applied Social Sciences. They are friends, as it happens, of Mr. Sher, who in turn introduced them to Mr. Rogers, who interviewed them extensively before writing this play. You might expect “Oslo” to have a self-servingly limited perspective. But as he demonstrated in his earlier plays about international politics, including “The Overwhelming” and “Blood and Gifts,” Mr. Rogers doesn’t traffic in superheroes. His well-intentioned interventionists in foreign lands often turn out to be ambivalent fumblers in the manner of Graham Greene’s protagonists. “Oslo” doesn’t have the layers of complexity (and the respect for what we can’t know) of Michael Frayn’s great, similarly speculative you-are-there dramas “Copenhagen” and “Democracy.” But it’s a vivid, thoughtful and astonishingly lucid account of a byzantine chapter in international politics. Mona and Terje are (spoiler) more successful in their endeavors than Mr. Rogers’s previous versions of such characters, at least in terms of immediate goals. But as embodied by (hooray!) Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays, they are complicated beings in a less-than-perfect marriage with a sometimes faltering grasp of the international time bomb they have set ticking. Well, perhaps not Mona, who always keeps her head and manages repeatedly to pluck victory from the jaws of disaster. But Mona has the advantages, as well as the disadvantages, of often being the only woman in the room; and she has the unqualified advantage of being played by the irresistible Ms. Ehle (the definitive BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice,” the 2000 Broadway revival of “The Real Thing”), who manages to be practically perfect without turning into Mary Poppins. It is Mona who serves as our wryly neutral narrator, sliding briefly and fluidly out of the action to place us on timelines and annotate references. She and Terje have been ingeniously conceived as perpetual, generally gracious hosts to the play itself and to the social encounters within, pouring drinks, moving furniture and overseeing the seating arrangements on Michael Yeargan’s elegant, minimalist set. Of course, the gatherings they preside over have astronomically higher stakes than those of an average cocktail party. When the play begins, a dinner at Mona and Terje’s home is interrupted by a phone call — two, actually, and simultaneous. It’s Israel on one line and the P.L.O. on the other. The couple’s guests, the Norwegian foreign minister Johan Jorgen Holst (T. Ryder Smith) and his wife, Marianne Heiberg (Henny Russell), are not pleased when Terje explains his goal of secretly bringing irreconcilable adversaries to the bargaining table. “The world is cracking open,” says the blazing-eyed Terje, who has a habit of sounding like Tony Kushner in “Angels in America” when he is excited. (Mr. Mays, a Tony winner for “I Am My Own Wife,” expertly elicits the brazen but uneasy showboat in Terje.) Holst is skeptical and alarmed. That’s a response that Terje and Mona will continue to encounter in many forms. And the play’s rhythms are dictated by the couple’s repeated overcoming of resistance. I leave it to historians to confirm or dispute the accuracy of Mr. Rogers’s portrayals. But he has done a fine job of mapping the lively, confusing intersection where private personalities cross with public roles. The supporting ensemble members, some of whom are double-cast, create credibly idiosyncratic portraits, right down to the two-man security detail (Christopher McHale and Jeb Kreager) that arrives in the show’s second half. Only occasionally does the script resort to the telegraphic shorthand of cute, defining quirks. The relationships that emerge from within and between the opposing camps are steeped in a poignant multifacetedness, as sworn enemies find themselves tentatively speaking the language of friendship. This is most eloquently embodied by Uri Savir, an Israeli cabinet member portrayed juicily by Michael Aronov as an exuberant rock-star dignitary, and Ahmed Qurie , the P.L.O. finance minister played with a careful balance of wariness and warmth by Anthony Azizi. The cast also memorably includes Daniel Oreskes and Daniel Jenkins as a pair of Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern-ish academics from Haifa; Adam Dannheisser as an Israeli foreign minister with digestive problems; Joseph Siravo as a hard-line Jewish lawyer; and Dariush Kashani as a hard-line Marxist Palestinian. Mr. Oreskes also shows up as Shimon Peres. But the most famous power players in this drama, Rabin and Arafat, never appear, at least not in the flesh. However, at various points, different characters do imitations of the more famous politicians who remain in the wings. The ways in which these impersonations evolve, and the responses they provoke, create some of the play’s tensest and funniest moments. It’s no secret that politicians have to be actors, which the characters in “Oslo” well know. Their understanding and re-creation of the signature styles of allies and enemies make for unexpected moments of personal catharsis and illumination. They also happen to be the stuff of crackling theater.

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