By Samuel L. Leiter
I have a friend who’s written a play about a major 20th-century diplomatic crisis but is struggling to find a way to compress its many characters and complex issues into a solid drama with a reasonable run time. I believe, though, he might get a handle on his play if he studies Oslo, J.T. Rogers’s stimulating envisioning of the secret talks that led to the Oslo Peace Accords, signed in 1993.
At the signing, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzik Rabin shook hands with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in the White House Rose Garden as President Clinton looked on. Regardless of the criticisms the rather shaky Accords received, no other diplomatic breakthrough has come as close to establishing Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Oslo, warmly received on its premiere last summer at Lincoln Center’s Newhouse, is now ensconced upstairs at the Broadway-level Beaumont, where the same 15 actors are giving it a vigorous, if not particularly subtle, performance under the firm baton of Bartlett Sher.
The fascinating story is enacted on Michael Yeargan’s imposing yet spare set, intended to suggest multiple neutral environments, with perfectly timed trap doors and actors smoothly moving furniture from one of the many scenes to another.
Rogers’s play is about the well-documented but previously little-known backchannel diplomacy that led to the Accords. The material was first brought to Rogers’s attention in 2011 when he met one of the two Norwegian diplomats whose idea it was. He then fashioned his extensive research into this nearly three-hour drama, lightened by occasional humor, focusing on the principal participants.
At its heart are the Norwegians, Terje Rød-Larsen, a highly placed sociologist, and his wife, Mona Juul, an official in the Foreign Ministry. Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle carry these roles with marvelous dignity and aplomb.
Terje and Mona believe that the only way to bring peace to these combative Middle Eastern rivals is to begin on the most basic human level, not at conference tables visible to the entire world, but in private meetings between dedicated representatives discussing matters unofficially on behalf of their leaders. Everyone else, especially the U.S., is to be kept in the dark.
The theory is that when the adversaries get to know each other as people, not abstractions, over food (in particular, a housekeeper’s [Henny Russell] waffles) and drink (Johnny Walker deserves a Nobel Prize), they’ll learn to live and let live.
Oslo is the result of how Rogers’s research led him to imagine Terje and Mona’s maneuvering to bring the two sides together, especially when facing the skepticism of Norwegian Foreign Minister Johan Jorgen Holst (T. Ryder Smith), and the contentious behavior of the hated enemies when left alone in the same room. His method, as Rogers has written, involved conflating characters, compressing chronology, and assigning actions to others than those who did them.
In addition, Rogers says: “Though every character . . . is named for a real person, the words they say are mine.” Thus we not only get some funny jokes that were probably never told but hear countless “F-word” missiles being launched, an overused tic presumably meant to reveal the distinguished participants as flesh-and-blood human beings.
Rogers, occasionally assisted by video projections (by 59 Productions) of both information and bloody events, wisely incorporates both sides of the conflict without favoring either. All the familiar obstacles, such as the fates of Jerusalem and the Israeli settlements, are on the table and each side gets to quarrel passionately about the other’s egregious behavior.
In fact, enough angry steam is blown off to crumble the walls of Jericho; there’s so much shouting it’s a wonder anything gets done at all. (These frequent histrionic outbreaks, which tend to dehumanize and theatricalize the negotiators, are the production’s greatest weakness.)
Meanwhile, Mona and Terje steer clear of partisanship as they tiptoe through the complicated minefield to keep the sensitive talks on track.
Of the three principal leaders, Arafat, Rabin, and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres (Daniel Oreskes), only the latter actually appears, although Arafat is comically impersonated by Uri Savir, the volatile, wise guy Deputy General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, energetically acted by Michael Aronov.
The talks begin with four participants, the PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie a.k.a. Abu Ala (Anthony Azizi) and the PLO Liaison Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani), an explosive Marxist, for the Palestinians, and, for the Israelis, two Haifa University professors, Yair Hirschfeld (Oreskes) and Ron Pundak (Daniel Jenkins).
Only after the discussions move one step forward, one step back, toward a resolution, do they progress to where the leaders themselves learn of them, which leads to their eventual conclusion.
Promising as were the results, of course, it wasn’t long before they were riddled with bullets and sprayed with blood. Today the situation remains much as it was before, with little optimism in view. Oslo reminds us of how difficult the path to peace remains.
Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont
150 W. 65th St, NYC
Through June 18
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).