Europe, 1993: a place where old structures were shaking loose and tectonic shift was under way. The Berlin Wall had fallen; the European Union was being born. And in a snowy northern corner of the continent, a group of diplomats was attempting to translate that sense of hope to a place where little had shifted in decades — Israel and Palestine — through the secret, back-channel negotiations that produced the now-famous Oslo Accords.
Knowing, now, how much darkness followed that celebrated Arafat-Rabin handshake on the White House lawn, it’s hard to remember the Oslo period without cynicism or dismay. But that’s what J.T. Rogers’s good-hearted, occasionally frustrating, three-hour epic, Oslo, attempts to do (the play is running at Lincoln Center, in a production directed by Bartlett Sher). Tracing the unfolding of clandestine negotiations orchestrated by Norwegian diplomats Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle) and Terje Rød-Larsen (Jefferson Mays), Rogers immerses us in the everyday experience of diplomacy, capturing the tiny exchanges and painful, inching concessions necessary for either side to grasp the possibility of peace.
Inspired by the real testimony of the Norwegian diplomats involved, Oslo is, at heart, a friendship saga, detailing the slow, unpredictable ways in which sworn enemies can warm to each other. Juul and Rød-Larsen invite unofficial representatives of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization to Oslo for direct talks: no intermediaries, no rules. These negotiators wield little real power — Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi) represents the PLO with Arafat’s
dubious permission, while Yair Hirschfeld (Daniel Oreskes), an Israeli economics professor, bumbles about with Yossi Beilin’s tacit OK. Still, over endless plates of waffles and salmon, through late nights, angry outbursts, and shared jokes, the men begin to sketch out a set of principles both sides might grudgingly accept.
In each of Rogers’s three acts, the tension slowly mounts, with Israel sending
increasingly powerful negotiators to the
table: In Act II, the foreign ministry’s flashy Uri Savir (Michael Aronov) replaces Hirschfeld, and in Act III, we meet the rumbly-voiced Shimon Peres himself (also played by Oreskes). Arafat, exiled in Tunis, emerges as a wordless presence during a late-night, eleventh-hour phone call: The Norwegians (and we) can’t hear his voice — only tears of wonder on our end of the line.
Theatrically, Oslo falls somewhat flat. Anxious to clarify the diplomatic intricacies, Rogers supplements his dialogue with repetitive direct-address narration, and between scenes, projected newsreel footage foists an insistent literalness onto a story whose high stakes are already clear. Toward the end — while acknowledging the decades of violence that came after Oslo — Rogers also works harder than necessary to demonstrate the historic nature of the Accords and the possibilities they could still represent. Most disappointingly, Oslo lends little depth to the Norwegian diplomats themselves, who — from altruism, a quest for power, or something else — worked
desperately to resolve intractable conflicts in lands not their own.
Still, Oslo contains a form of thoughtful hope that is welcome in our own days of Brexit shock — as the Europe forged in the early Nineties is shifting again before our eyes. Rogers’s play testifies to the irreplaceable necessity of intimate conversation between apparent enemies, the unequaled power of listening, and the forceful change that shared company can produce: if not direct paths to peace, the consoling possibility of friendship.
By J.T. Rogers
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
150 West 65th Street
Through August 28