If You See Something, Say Something

Monday, July 11, 2016: OSLO at Lincoln Center Theater/The Mitzi E. Newhouse

Professional relationships are as disposable as goods on the shelves at Walmart in our culture, 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.

We may now look back on that 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 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 makes 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, determined to protect 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 show movement on both sides as the four negotiators thrust and parry and nurse unexpected friendships, the Israeli professors are replaced by actual 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. I was in the critical minority regarding Sher's Broadway revival of "Fiddler on the Roof," but he 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," and the plays "Golden Boy" and a spectacular, heart-wrenching take on August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" -- or new work such as this.

Like Rogers, Sher takes 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 fitrst-rank group of artists (Michael Yeargan, the simple, suggestive sets; Donald Holder, the detailed lighting plan; Catherine Zuber, the spot-on costumes) Rogers and Sher 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.

***

Sunday, July 10, 2016: SYDNEY SCHANBERG

Sydney Schanberg died yesterday and we all are the poorer for his loss. The obits, including Robert McFadden's in today's Times -- http://goo.gl/hqejZE -- will rightly focus on Syd's heroic dispatches from Cambodia, his friendship and sponsorship of Dith Pran and the work that led to "The Killing Fields." But I would like to take a moment to recall just how important Syd's trailblazing, epater-la-bourgeoisie op-ed columns in the Times were, and which are, perhaps not surprisingly, glossed in the Times obit. Sydney Schanberg was a radical by Times standards, a champion of the poor, a warrior against poverty and a flame-thrower against the political hypocrisy of the times (and, ultimately, the Times, for which he ultimately paid the dearest price). He waged a tireless campaign against the boondoggle that was Westway, rightly framing it as a business wolf in civic sheep's clothing. Here he is, in a 1984 column headlined The Crime of Poverty:

"Poverty can, clearly, be a factor in crime in some circumstances. But arguing that it is not can be a useful campaign tactic in more ways than the obvious. It can, for instance, serve to distract middle-class and affluent citizens from the enormity of the privation that is all around them in this city. A person can understand the distraction strategy because, after all, it is not a comforting thing to gaze directly at the poor - or their numbers and condition. Better to look away, as people do in Calcutta. Better yet, praise the poor as law-abiding and enlist public sympathy for their stoic suffering by pointing out that they are the prime victims of crime. This will make the non-poor feel better, even if it does nothing to help the poor get better."

I worked peripherally with Syd at New York Newsday, where he had landed as Associate Editor under Don Forst, and sought him out when the Times offered me a job as Broadway reporter. We had a very long talk in his office which, characteristically, was choked with cigar smoke. He was unequivocal: Sydney carried the love-hate virus that infects all Timesmen and women, and said I must take the job, which I did.

The next time I saw him was at the 50th wedding anniversary thrown by my high school drama coach and Shakespeare teacher Tony Howarth, who had been a newsman before he became a teacher. It turned out that Tony had been Sydney's editor at Stars & Stripes. Talk about one's world being a series of interlocking circles.

But enough about me.

Sydney Schanberg had more balls than a bowling alley. He brought honor, passion and fearlessness, along with distinguished journalism, to the Times and to the profession. You don't need to hear that from me, but I needed to say it.

***

Wednesday, 6 July 2016: RUNAWAYS at New York City Center Encores! Off-Center

I was still fairly new to the critics' game when Runaways opened at the Public Theater cabaret in the winter of 1978, but I was electrically connected to the stories sung, danced, screamed belted and sobbed by the 18 youthful performers Elizabeth Swados had assembled for her show about street kids. I'd already spent a decade as surrogate parent in several city-supported residential treatment centers, living in cottages with the youngest boys and girls, none of whom was there by accident. Their small lives already had been scarred by physical and psychological abuse; they had lived with child-parents entrapped in addiction and poverty and were intimate with rage, with glass shards pressed to flesh, with nightmares. They also were somehow suffused with creative energy, with complex intelligence and, almost to a one, with a gift for comedy, often of a macabre bent. There wasn't a story told from that crowded platform that I hadn't known first-hand.

If I was versed in the subject, however, nothing could have prepared me for Swados's feral blast of a show, what Richard Eder in the Times admiringly called her "troubled vaudeville." Like A Chorus Line, born three years earlier in this same theatrical miracle machine, Runaways was built on interviews, in this case with kids as young as 11 or 13 who found the street and the camaraderie of innocents preferable to the violence (or sometimes just indifference) of home. And if Chorus Line in its move to Broadway changed Broadway forever, so Runaways (which had a Broadway run as well but, even spiked for the uptown audience, proved too raw for the Uptown audience) would leave an indelible imprint on artists to come, from Jonathan Larson of Rent to The Lion King's Julie Taymor (with whom Swados collaborated at the Public) to Duncan Sheik of Spring Awakening to, of course, Lin-Manuel Miranda of In The Heights and now Hamilton.

And for me, well Runaways was the Officer Obie at the intersection of my young life's two passions, which were crazy damaged kids and the crazy damaged kids who grew up and made theater. Runaways brought it all into focus, and I never looked back. Until, of course, this revival, of Runaways.

To understand just how influential Swados (who died in January) was, you have only to find your way to the powerful wallop of a production that City Center has mounted to launch this final season of Encores! Off-Center under the artistic direction of Jeanine Tesori, who has curated this series with affection, intelligence and love. Staged by Sam Pinkleton, with eclectic dancing by Ai Taj and sinuous musical direction by Chris Fenwick, a cast of 25 revives all the anti-glam chaos of the original production without the souped-up contrivances that weakened the original Broadway move. In a nod to the visual emotional power that deaf actors using American Sign Language have brought to Big River and the recent revival of Spring Awakening, the cast features the gifted actress Ren, sporadically interpreted by Siena Rafter (both were involved in Spring Awakening). I can't say what else has been added or stripped from the original, but I can say that the choral work is magnificent and that my memory of the score as being an underappreciated gem has only intensified on hearing live again the gorgeous anthem "We Are Not Strangers." The cast is uniformly impressive.

The street-corner dump of a set devised by Donyale Werle and lit by Mark Barton, and Clint Ramos's funky costumes are of a piece.

For my own reasons, I found this revisit to Runaways at once exhilarating and wrenching. Swados will, I think only emerge as a greater influence with the passage of time. For now, we have this spirited and altogether ecstatic revival.