“Oslo,” a fascinating play about the surprising story behind the first peace accord between the Israelis and Palestinians, arrives at Lincoln Center at a time when we can use something hopeful amid the horror and chaos of the last few weeks.
According to the play, a little-known Norwegian couple instigated and pushed along the secret negotiations between the two warring sides that led to the famous moment when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands at the White House in 1993.
The versatile Jefferson Mays (“I Am My Own Wife,” “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder”) portrays sociologist Terje Rod-Larsen; Jennifer Ehl (The Coast of Utopia) is his wife Mona Juul, an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, who serves as narrator. As Mona explains, the couple was working in the Middle East when they came upon a confrontation between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian protesters in a back alley in Gaza:
“Two boys facing each other, one in uniform, one in jeans, weapons in hand, hate flowing between them. But their faces—and we both see this—their faces are exactly the same. The same fear. The same desperate desire to be anywhere but here. To not be doing this, to this other boy. And there, in that moment, for us, it began.”
They used their connections and their convictions to forge a secret “back channel,” at the same time that official negotiations in Washington D.C. were going on with no progress. The Norwegian couple relied on their tenacity and Rod-Larsen’s model for negotiating between implacable enemies, which called for focusing on one issue at a time, rather than all issues at once, with the aim of building up personal bonds of trust. Within nine months, the back channel became the official channel, and the two sides signed the Oslo Accords.
“Oslo” is written by J.T. Rogers and directed by Bartlett Sher (better known for helming luscious revivals of “South Pacific” and “The King and I.”) They are the same team that put together “Blood and Gifts,” about America’s covert involvement in the Soviet Union’s war with Afghanistan. Like that 2011 drama, “Oslo” has a long running time full of a large cast portraying multiple characters engaged in lots of…talking. Unlike “Blood and Gifts,” the three-hour running time of “Oslo” went by relatively swiftly for me. The creative team invests the principal characters with personalities; we see them get passionate, yell, apologize, share stories about their families, even tell jokes and mock their superiors…slowly, in other words, build those personal bonds, turning from nervous and outraged in each other’s company, to standoffish, to something approaching friendship. It helps that the adversaries are played so credibly – especially by stand-out Anthony Azizi as Ahmed Qurie, the finance minister for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and Daniel Oreskes both as a schlemiel of a professor of economics and as stately foreign minister Shimon Peres.
In a program note, the playwright points out that, although “the events in the play all happened,” the words the characters say “are mine,” and the chronology and other details have been altered. This makes one wonder whether the play could have done without some of those details. The issue of Lincoln Center magazine about the play offers a debate as to the significance of the long-ago negotiations, and whether they should be admired as a model or regretted as a mistake – something that the end of the play toys with as well. This makes one wonder whether we leave the theater with a false sense of hope. Still, “Oslo” gives us not only a lucid refresher course on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and provides us entertainment that is both surprisingly funny and suspenseful. It also leaves us with a sense that maybe even the world’s most unsettling situations can someday be settled.
Written by J.T. Rogers; Directed by Bartlett Sher
Sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Donald Holder, sound by Peter John Still, Projections by 59 Productions
Cast: Michael Aronov, Anthony Azizi, Adam Dannheisser, Jennifer Ehle, Daniel Jenkins, Dariush Kashani, Jeb Kreager, Jefferson Mays, Christopher McHale, Daniel Oreskes, Henny Russell, Joseph Siravo and T. Ryder Smith
Running time: three hours, including two intermissions.
“Oslo” is scheduled to run through August 28, 2016