Remember how mad I got at Birdman? Because it was so artsy fartsy without really saying anything worthwhile and I seemed to be the only person who didn’t think it was Jesus in movie form? It’s absolutely nothing compared to my anger at “Oslo”. I would vote for Birdman right now for this year’s Oscars ffs. At least Birdman had objectively good acting and objectively impressive cinematography. “Oslo” has none of that. It is a mess of terrible writing (terrible!), awful overacting (awful!), and obvious lack of any editing (obvious!). But worst of all, it wastes the opportunity of writing great art based on this subject matter, AND, because it is important subject matter, it seems to have tricked everyone into assuming that it is indeed great art. The greatest trick the devil ever played is convincing everyone in theatre that “Oslo” is quality.
But of course we had no idea that “Oslo” was going to be the theatre equivalent of a chicken in a magician’s hat and everyone including the chicken is like ‘what, no’ when we excitedly bought tickets and when we excitedly went to the theatre and when we excitedly pranced about the lobby before the show started. I had heard such good things and hellooo it won the Tony! How many times am I going to say that, I hear you asking? I get it, it won the Tony! Well I just still can’t believe it. I’ve been against some Tony wins in the past - David Hyde Pierce for “Curtains” over Raul Esparza for “Company”, anyone at all over Rachel Bay Jones for “Pippin” - but those winners were still deserving as hell, they just weren’t my vote. But “Oslo” winning anything but a Razzie is like when Joe Fox’s child-aunt sings “Tomorrow” while his new temporary stepmother makes a pass at him. JUST A LOT OF NO.
Anyway so there we were all hyped up for some Middle East peace process goodness preshow when I realized that the Harold Pinter Theatre in London was CHOCKABLOCK full of every Jew in Europe, squashed into the poorly designed too-small lobby like sardines, which old Jews love. Oh my goodness I don’t think I saw that many Israelis when I was IN Israel. I was happy at first because I like to force a camaraderie with my fellows when Nazis are back in power but then the whole theatre started smelling like Yom Kippur breath and that’s hard to get past.
Still I couldn’t wait to be blown away by the intellect and the intrigue and the excellent writing I expected. The show began, I was so revved up to be smacked in the face with genius...and then the old lady next to me - NEXT TO ME - took out her tote bag, pulled out a plastic bag, and out of that pulled two very tightly wrapped sandwiches with some sort of mayo-based salad, probably chicken given the demographics. So those of you who know me know that I am not only Theatre Police, I’m regular Theatre Police’s worst nightmare. I grab phones out of hands, I get ushers to admonish talkers, I jump out of my seat to tell people to get in line or gtfo. Boorish behavior at the theatre drives me insane. I just want people to not behave like monsters; is that so much to ask? So the fact that this sandwich-eating monster who thinks it’s okay to whip out a plastic-wrapped sandwich and slowly unwrap it and then munch on it IN THE THEATRE was NEXT TO ME was like the universe getting drunk and seeing how crazy they could make me while it watches, cracking up while eating potato chips and laughing to universe friends going ‘LOOK AT ‘ER LOOK AT ‘ER SHE’S GONNA LOSE IT’. That’s how I pictured the universe at this moment. I honestly almost stood up and shouted “oh THIS is the bad place!” If Ted Dansen wanted to torture me for eternity this was the brilliant way to do it. I was frozen for a minute as I just sat horrified that someone was actually doing this not only in the theatre but next to me of all people, before I gathered my wits and whispered ‘omg stop’. She didn’t hear me, of course, what with her loud chewing blocking any sound from entering her ears. A kindred spirit in the row in front of us and a few seats down kept turning around in shock to stare at this brazenly bad behavior, making eye contact with me and we shook our heads in disbelief and disgust together. Friends! I tried again: ‘please put that away’. Old sandwich lady seemed completely shocked that anyone would have a problem with an audience member sitting in the fourth row center of the orchestra, right where the actors look most of the time, proudly eating a chicken salad sandwich in the middle of a drama about the motherfreaking Middle East. She stopped but still, the damage was done. She and her even older husband talked a lot during the show too. “WHAT DID HE SAY?” “HE SAID HE’S TIRED, RIGHT? TIRED.” I mean me too lady.
Amid all the old people conversations and the bursts of Yom Kippur breath hitting us like hot air darts from absolutely nowhere (it was horrid), we tried to focus on the play, and we really tried to love it even a smidgen as much as we had hoped to. It tells the story of two Norwegian diplomats, Mona Juul and Terje Rod-Larsen (obviously their names are properly spelled with some fun Scandinavian alphabet marks that I’m not going to bother to find and add in because this show isn’t worth the effort), who organize secret negotiations between representatives sent by Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yassir Arafat in 1993, keeping their experiment a secret from the rest of the world. Everything could have gone wrong, and a lot did, but the Norwegian couple risked everything to try to get people from both sides to talk to each other as fellow human beings, to find some common ground, and to reach agreements on important issues using Terje’s newfangled methods, which are never explained in the show but apparently work. We meet frumpy Jews, slick Matrix-wannabe Jews, friendly Arabs, scary stoic Arabs, all the various, passionate players in these backdoor dealings, all trying to behave somewhat peaceably and fairly while aiming for a win for their side.
It could have been so moving, so important and dramatic and educational.
Instead, it’s a total shitshow of immature writing, overacting, lack of edits, and stupid jokes aimed at super old uncritical audiences. It sounds so great but the stellar idea had its potential completely destroyed in the execution. It was like The Big Bang Theory of theatre, aimed at the lowest common denominator - incredibly basic and unsophisticated and barely shooting above the baseline but still capable of winning lots of awards (and viewers and money and acclaim). But the difference is that I sometimes laugh at Big Bang, It can be funny despite its uninspired attempts at easy humor (not to mention its sexism and racism). “Oslo” is worse than Big Bang in every way - writing, directing, acting, enjoyment. I know, I can’t believe I’m saying this either, that a Tony-winning play is so much worse than the most insipid show on TV in recent years. But it’s true.
A huge problem with “Oslo”, besides everything I already mentioned, is that despite the subject matter being such a selling point for it, it doesn’t have any faith in it. The writer and everyone in the creative team apparently didn’t believe that it could stand as an important show because they cram it full of the worst jokes you’ve ever heard, I guess to keep the older-skewing audience thinking they’re having fun. When the Israelis were talking about potential representatives to send, one would say “Oh he can’t handle it - he’s from HAIFA!” and the oldest, deafest Jews in the audience would roar with laughter while I sat there just jaw-dropped from disbelief at how bad these would be even for Borscht Belt comedy acts. Or when in the middle of talking about important issues, one guy would make a joke about how he loves gefilte fish and everyone would laugh simply because he said gefilte fish and old Jewish men think that’s the funniest thing to talk about. I cannot. There was also an extended bit when the Norwegian chef of Mona and Terje tell the guests how she makes her waffles. It was tortuous enough to put you off waffles for good, and I love waffles. I thought my husband’s head was going to explode during that part. He didn’t say anything - he knows me; even in the worst of shows you behave - but I could sense the heat coming off the whirring of his brain cells as they tried with all their might to keep the blood in the head.
Aside from the very, very dumb jokes...no, none of it was any better. The negotiation scenes should have been strong, but the writing, oh god it was so weak. You know from reading my travel posts how much I love cursing, right? I do it a lot. I am not shy about it and I appreciate when cursing is used well. This play is the best case I’ve ever seen for outlawing cursing in all forms. It was so frustrating how poorly it used what could be a great tool. How do you ruin that? They would shoehorn the f word into almost every sentence, and it never made sense or sounded good or worked to increase drama. It just sounded stupid. “Let’s get these fucking talks going.” “I only have fucking until six o’clock.” “I’m fucking hungry let’s get the fucking dinner.” These aren’t exact quotes but they are decent examples of how poorly written this show was. How can you be so bad at cursing? And that wasn’t the only tool that was so overused that it became a shivering pile of ash that only hinted at once being metal. The actors shouted 98% of their lines. When everything is shouting, there’s nowhere to build, and so nothing stands out as being dramatic or important. You can’t start at 10 and then have nowhere to build when you are talking about the Middle East. The only result of all the shouting and screaming was that I tuned everything out, which I doubt was the intent.
Even more frustrating and tasteless was how the sole important woman was treated - and that the creators I doubt even realize how it came across. Every single time a man entered the room, they would comment on how great Mona was and how she was such a wonderful woman. Every single time, they would single out her as a the sole woman and point out how they wished she could be their wife. Always in a jovial, friendly manner, always so easygoing as to make most of the audience (and I’m guessing the playwright) assume that this was just men being friendly. But it came across to us, woke af millennials, as so despicably sexist, so demeaning to this woman who was A DIPLOMAT, equal in importance if not more so to her diplomat husband and colleagues, that it makes me fear that every man involved in the creation of this show is indeed a good ol’ boy type of sexist, not even realizing when they are being disgusting to women.
The saddest thing about this show, aside from the fact that the peace talks obviously didn’t really do much, was that it was artless. Theatre is art, and this clumsy, vulgar attempt was so completely devoid of any merit that it made me sad for this great love of mine. Well not completely devoid - Peter Polycarpou, always terrific, is the best part of this production. His acting as Ahmed from the PLO was somehow able to shine past the terrible writing he was given. But that’s really it. I cannot believe my beloved Barlett Sher directed this mess. He really needs to stick to golden age musicals starring Kelli O’Hara. It breaks my art that this show is so bad because it’s the worst kind of badness - the insidious kind, that no one else believes you about. Everyone - LITERALLY everyone else - thinks this show is amazing. The show SHOULD be amazing! I wanted it to be! I guess the silver lining is that we haven’t lost our critical sense yet?
The best part was when we both broke our rules. At the end, they do that awful ‘what happened next to every character?’ bit that is soooo annoying usually but you can give a pass when it’s about real-life people (and in Legally Blonde). But they had all the side characters do their what-I-did-next bits too! That is unnecessary. When one lady who had LITERALLY one line had her turn and said ‘I had a heart attack and I died’ we both suppressed (or tried to at least) guffaws and I kind of whispered ‘good’. This show is so bad it makes me awful. When the raucous applause finally died down, my husband and I looked at each other in disbelief. Husband had the best line we heard the entire night: “Oh that was so bad...oh I’m so unhappy!” And then we cracked up for like 10 minutes as we shook our heads at the rest of the world.
The play is terrible, but at least it’s overly long!! The first act is an hour and 15 minutes. The second? AN HOUR AND 45 MINUTES. OH THISSS IS THE BAD PLACE!