It may seem like a strange time for a play about diplomacy. For those who haven’t made a career of it, the concept isn’t very much in vogue right now, with politicians and pundits preaching loudly to their separate choirs under a president who, even his supporters would admit, hasn’t made getting along well with others a top priority. Besides, now that social media has provided us (and him) with an unfiltered outlet, aren’t discretion and compromise just, like, so 20th century?
The play in question, J.T. Rogers’ bracing and absorbing Oslo, takes us back to the early ‘90s and to another continent, where two groups even more intractably opposed than the Democrats and Republicans somehow managed to find common ground. The Oslo Accords, agreements carved out between Israel’s government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (signed in 1993) over numerous rounds of back-channel negotiations near Norway’s capital, hardly provided a perfect or permanent solution, as news reports remind us with depressing regularity. But the process, which is Rogers’ focus, offered a model that felt especially necessary when the play premiered Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater last summer, in the thick of the most polarizing election season in recent U.S. history.
As we now know, that period was just a warm-up for the noise and chaos that followed, and Oslo has arrived at LCT’s Broadway venue with its sense of urgency intact, if not heightened. Director Bartlett Sher, whose rigorous insights into history and human relationships have buoyed new works and revivals, has actors rearrange the pieces of Michael Yeargan’s spare set as one scene flows into another, so that the production seems in constant, almost frantic, motion. Their characters pace and circle each other and raise their voices suddenly, lashing out or buckling under the strain of having to maintain their composure. Bits of dialogue teeter into speechifying here and there, but you’ll barely notice; the balance of passion, discipline, and suspense is organically, thrillingly theatrical.
The people we meet are Palestinian, Israeli, and Norwegian. There’s only one American, a diplomat who has learned of the secret discussions just outside Oslo, which were devised in part because United States-led efforts, excluding the PLO, had been fruitless. Terje Rod-Larsen, a sociologist and director of a research institute, conceives the covert operation; his wife, Mona Juul, an official in Norway’s foreign ministry, helps bring skeptical players to the table and proves indispensable in keeping them there. We learn that the couple — friends of Sher’s in real life, superbly played here by Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle — met when Terje was Mona’s professor. “I argued with him, he argued back,” recalls Mona, whom Rogers also makes an occasional narrator, giving her asides that range in tone from wry to wonderstruck.
The Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are also charmed, and titillated, by the still-young woman (Juul was in her early 30s at the time) who hosts them with her spouse at a well-appointed estate, where they are required to eat and drink and kibitz together when not locked in debate. PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurie (a robust and dashing Anthony Azizi) and Uri Savir of Israel’s foreign ministry (the charismatic Michael Aronov, mining the humor in his character’s arrogance) respectively represent Chairman Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and are naturally intent on waving their, um, masculine authority around in public. Terje the academic, the man of lofty ideas, is teased and humiliated by both alpha males — just as he would have been on the playground had they all attended the same school years earlier.
It’s in discovering the fundamental, elemental things that connect them that the characters realize the possibility of overcoming differences, even as their perspectives and goals continually clash. The Palestinians and Israelis find mutual rapture in homemade waffles baked by the estate’s Norwegian housekeeper. Uri and Ahmed, having asserted their manhood, discover they both have daughters, and that the girls have something in common. One of Ahmed’s colleagues tells one of Uri’s colleagues, “You are my first Jew.”
Though both Rogers and Sher have stressed that Oslo is not intended as a historical reenactment, it’s a safe bet that some of the lines tossed around that room nearly 25 years ago were just as funny and awkward and poignant. High stakes and hard choices tend to produce uncomfortable moments, but as this muscular, moving production reminds us, progress isn’t easy — even when it’s incomplete.