A few weeks ago, the playwright J.T. Rogers arrived early to an interview and texted to say he was already on East 10th Street, “deep in nostalgia.” Rogers had spent the morning at a press event that celebrated the seven Tony nominations for Oslo, his play that began Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater and has since opened at the Vivian Beaumont. Now he stood on a stoop where he used to get mugged at knifepoint.
Though a nominee pin gleamed from his lapel, in his mind Rogers had returned to the school holidays and summers he spent with his mother in this tenement building. Some things, like the Russian baths next door, hadn’t changed. Others, like the building itself, definitely had. “This place was a shithole,” he marveled as he shouldered his way into the renovated lobby. At the sight of a sleek card-activated washer-dryer, Rogers, a self-proclaimed “mouthy guy,” was struck dumb.
As he recovered, he recalled the Ridiculous Theatrical Company plays he caught at La MaMa, the Living Theater shows he watched at Theater for the New City, the impromptu performances he chanced on by the legendary writer-performer Jeff Weiss, who used to live across the street. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what theater is,’ ” he said.
That kind of theater — messy, libidinous, ecstatic — is not the kind that Rogers makes. Instead, he has built a career out of incisive political fictions based in political facts. His works reckon with how outsiders can and can’t, will and won’t involve themselves in distant conflicts. As he said in a speech he gave in 2008, “I had to lift my eyes from my navel and look out into the world.”
The English critic Michael Billington has called Rogers “that rare creature: an American dramatist who writes about global issues.” Nicholas Hytner, the former artistic director of England’s National Theater, which will soon produce Oslo, had even more praise, saying in an email, “a writer like J.T. is a godsend.”
Rogers’s plays include The Overwhelming, set in Rwanda just before the genocide; Blood and Gifts, an exploration of American involvement in Afghanistan; and now Oslo, a drama about the Norwegian back-channel that led to the Oslo Accord between Israel and Palestine.
Each of these plays is intellectually adept and politically astute. But Rogers goes for the gut, too, grounding his suspenseful, sneakily empathetic works with characters like the quarreling father and son of The Overwhelming, or the beleaguered diplomats in Blood and Gifts.
Rogers, 48, attended the North Carolina School of the Arts and trained as an actor. He started writing plays and monologues there and continued after he moved to New York, while he catered and drove a trolley car in Central Park that one day caught fire while he was behind the wheel.
His early, unpublished attempts were cramped and self-conscious: “Ersatz Mamet,” said Rogers. Gradually, through plays like White People and Madagascar, his style became larger, bolder, more articulate, until he arrived at The Overwhelming.
As Jefferson Mays, who stars in Oslo, said of Rogers, “He flies in the face of that writerly maxim about writing what you know. He writes what he doesn’t know — writing as exploration and investigation in a very pure and curious way.”
The further Rogers’s plays are from his own experience, the better he likes them. “I get really bored of me,” he explained. (As Rogers is sardonic, animated, and a pretty fun guy to sneak into a building with, that made one of us.) His plays are designed to prevent audience boredom, too. Oslo, for example, is built on jokes and threats and missteps, as presumed enemies discover fellow feeling.
“He takes extremely complex historical circumstances and structures them into a dramatic event,” said Oslo’s director, Bartlett Sher. “He has a great capacity for the internal structure of a scene.”
On the afternoon of our interview, Rogers had had enough of internal structures. He left his old building and walked past a park and a library he hadn’t been allowed to visit as a child. “I never come here anymore. I’m kind of getting emotional,” he said. To relax, he stepped into a high-end veggie burger stand, where he ordered a burger, a broccoli salad, and an Arnold Palmer, then sat down on a bench to talk about Oslo.
He first heard the story of the secret negotiations while working on Blood and Gifts, also directed by Sher, who invited Norwegian diplomat Terje Rød-Larsen to speak to the cast, and then suggested that Larsen and Rogers should have a drink. Over that drink Rogers learned about the back-channel between Israelis and Palestinians that Larsen had organized with his wife, Mona Juul, in the early 1990s.
Rogers had wanted to write about the Middle East for years, but worried the subject was too divisive. In the Norwegians, he found “a way to get the audience to come into the story without going, ‘I’m an expert, and I disagree with what you’re saying.’ ”
To write the play, Rogers spent months reading and researching and talking out loud in the voices of his characters. He interviewed some of the real-life participants, but not others. “I wanted to move things around, make things up,” he said.
Rogers also worked to make the polite Norwegians (played by Mays and Jennifer Ehle) just as dynamic as the Israeli and Palestinian characters, particularly in their unwavering conviction that humanizing interactions — like the sharing of drinks and stories and waffles — can alter the course of world events. As the Larsen of the play says, the goal is “not grand pronouncements between governments, but intimate discussions between people.”
A three-hour play about political minutiae might sound like a snooze, but as Mays noted, the work is “infused with this great joyful, playful, anarchic energy.” Mays, Ehle, and Michael Aronov, who plays an Israeli diplomat, have all been nominated for Tonys, as have Sher and the set and lighting designers.
Rogers doesn’t know if he’ll win the Tony for Oslo. His competitors: Obie winners Lucas Hnath, Lynn Nottage, and Paula Vogel. But he’s proud the play is running, and not only because “for the first time in my life I am not drowning in debt.” He’s proud because of what it means to those watching.
After the 2016 presidential election, the play began to strike audiences less as a historical drama and more as an immediate reflection on politics in America right now. As Ehle noted, “Everyone’s looking for something to apply in a way that could give us hope.”
The crowds who come now, said Rogers, are “more devastated and weirdly hopeful.” It’s a hope Rogers tentatively shares. If Israelis and Palestinians can get together in a room and forge a better future, can’t Democrats and Republicans do the same? Maybe over a bourbon?
“Shouldn’t that be happening?” Rogers said. “It could.”