The best historical plays are the ones that send you into a Google spiral immediately following the curtain call. Think of Michael Frayn’s 2000 Tony winner Copenhagen, based on a meeting between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg; Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife, the 2004 Pulitzer-winning one-man show centering on German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf; Peter Morgan’s 2006 drama (and later movie) Frost/Nixon, focusing on a series of interviews between British TV presenter David Frost and the disgraced former American president. It’s not that the plays were lacking in any way; it’s that they left you with a burning desire to know more about a subject you never knew could be so captivating.
You’ll find your curiosity similarly piqued after J.T. Rogers’ intense, intellectual Oslo, now playing at Lincoln Center Theater’s Off Broadway Mitzi Newhouse stage. This deep dive into the Oslo Peace Accords — the groundbreaking 1993 deal between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (marked famously by a handshake between prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and chairman Yasser Arafat in the White House rose garden) — focuses on the Norwegians’ role in the events: largely, how social scientist Terje Rød-Larsen (the inimitable Jefferson Mays, fresh off A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) and his foreign ministry official wife, Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle), secretly (and improbably) brought both sides together.
Rogers has a bit of a gift for transforming contentious, complex historical subjects into digestible, but not dumbed-down, entertainment. In 2011’s Blood and Gifts, on this same stage and also in tandem with director Bartlett Sher (Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I), he tackled war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. And though Oslo clocks in at about three hours, it’s by no means a slog. There’s even plenty of profane humor packed in: For instance, Israel’s director general of the foreign ministry Uri Savir (Michael Aronov) addressing PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurei (Anthony Azizi) with the icebreaker, “Well, now that we’ve both swung our dicks…” (Rogers does write, in his program note, that “though every character in this play is named for a real person, the words they say are mine.”) Also, don’t worry if your knowledge of Middle East politics is nil. There’s enough backstory, largely delivered by the affable Ehle in an unsteady Norwegian accent, to fill in the necessary blanks.
But perhaps what’s most impressive about Oslo is its evenhandedness — and its optimism. You might wonder with whom Rogers sides, the Israelis or the Palestinians. Frankly, neither. Or both. What’s clear is this: He’s for peace. In a gorgeous show-ending speech that could apply to so much more than the events of the play — after the characters update us on the blood that has been shed since 1993 — Larsen implores us to look back, see “how far we have come,” and imagine where we could go. “The Possibility. Do you see it?” “Do you?” At the matinee I attended, a woman in the back row felt the need to reply: “It’ll never happen.” Well. Not with that attitude, lady. A–