“Oslo”: A Lost Middle East Peace

Anthony Azazi, Dariush Kashani, Joseph Siravno (foreground), Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays (background) in J. T. Rogers' Oslo. Photo: T Charles Erickson Photography.

Always motivated to write about global complexities, J. T. Rogers presents the conflicting realities of statesmanship and politics in Oslo, now hiking the temperature in Lincoln Center Theater’s air-conditioned Mitzi E. Newhouse.

“I have never met an Israeli — face to face”…

Learning there was quite a backstory to the Sept. 13,1993 signing of the Oslo Accords by Israel’s then-Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and Yasir Arafat, founder and chair of the Palestine Liberation Organization — how could there not have been? — Rogers threw himself into speculating what must have happened during the months preceding the historic agreement.

Check that. Instead of “must have happened,” perhaps substitute “might have happened.” As a result of his research, Rogers has identified many, if not all, of the players in the negotiations and, appropriating them as characters, imagines what they could have said during the tense talks — talks that eventually led to comprises and, eventually, an iconic and historic White House handshake presided over by President Bill Clinton — an otherwise minor player in the (temporary) breakthrough.

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Using not only imagined dialogue but incorporating what is already well-known about the accords, Rogers’ three-act, three-hour drama certainly has a pungent air of verisimilitude. (There are precedents for this play, such as Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, concerning a 1941 meeting between two legendary physicists — for reasons that remain open to speculation, even today.)

The Oslo Accords are so named because it was initiated in Norway by Terje Rod-Larsen (Jefferson Mays), director of the Fafo Institute for Applied Sciences, and his wife Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle), who worked under Johan Jorgen Holst (T. Ryder Smith), then Norway’s foreign minister. Holst, a diplomat, was unhappy with the unorthodox steps taken, without his knowledge, to set the circumstances for the accords into motion.

Consequently, Rogers — whose previous plays include Blood and Gifts and The Overwhelming — has produced an opus that anyone intrigued by the way politics are greased couldn’t do better than to tune into.

A pungent air of verisimilitude…

Oslo begins with a highly secret meeting between the PLO’s suspicious finance minister, Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi), who had Arafat’s ear but didn’t always consult him when he says he did; another PLO official, the hard-nosed communist Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani); and two professors from the University of Haifa, Yair Hirschfeld (Daniel Oreskes) and Ron Pundak (Daniel Jenkins). (Oreskes also doubles as Shimon Peres, who has served as President of Israel and four tours as Prime Minister and who, at the time of Oslo, was Rabin’s Foreign Minister. Along with Rabin and Arafat, Peres won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Accords.)

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Everything that transpires in Oslo is dramatic, but talky: don’t let anyone argue that strict attention needn’t be paid to every sentence uttered. As negotiations continue, with predictable obstacles cropping up, progress slowly is achieved and meaning mitigating friendships between dedicated enemies grow. “I have never met an Israeli — face to face,” Qurie remarks at the prospect of greeting Hirschfeld.

With the months of 1993 inching by, a few participants in the process become threateningly stubborn — at least as Rogers writes it. One is Uri Savir (Michael Aronov), the hyper-kinetic, scatological Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who becomes the chief negotiator and demonstrates disdain for his earlier counterparts. Another participant is Joel Singer (Joseph Siravo), a senior partner at a DC law firm who arrives skeptical of everything and everyone preceding him. (Salty language isn’t confined to Savir. It’s rife throughout the play.) Rogers also deftly uses humor, such as when the negotiators tell politically incorrect jokes mocking Israelis and Palestinians alike — laughter as a diplomatic aid. Numerous wisecracks definitely mirror life.

On a simple Michael Yeargan set representing numerous locales (Oslo, Cairo, Tel Aviv, London) and constantly requiring actors to push and pull furniture (calling Actors’ Equity…), Bartlett Sher directs with a traffic-cop’s skill. (Sher’s revival of The King and I just closed upstairs at the Vivian Beaumont.)

A beautifully balanced play.

The director also elicits fitting performances from his cast. Mays, as the man who creates the conditions within which so much is achieved, does extremely well with the occasional ignominies he must endure. Ehle, doing much of the narrating, is strong as a wife who must keep her determined husband within the proper facilitator’s bounds. In a work where, to some extent, performances are meant to be subservient to a broader purposes, the ensemble is flawless — with Aronov, Azizi, Kashani, Oreskes, Siravo, Smith and Adam Dannheisser (as the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister) pulling more than their share of the weight.

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Rogers’ chief achievement is a beautifully balanced play. Commissioned by Lincoln Center Theater, where concern for subscribers (many of them Jewish) is likely considered from time to time, Oslo doesn’t favor a political side. Certainly it doesn’t build up the place of the US in the events of the play, although a well-informed American diplomat, played by Christopher McHale, does arrive to announce that he knows all about what’s going on.

But if political correctness has been kept at bay, another element has unmistakably eased in, and it leaves one to wonder if it’s there to send audience members — at Lincoln Center Theater, surely more Jews than Palestinians — out of the hushed auditorium. Consider this your spoiler alert.

Rogers has the Accords signed, and then the cast members face the audience for an epilogue detailing where the characters are today. At that point, Mays, as Rod-Larsen, enters the audience to ask whether, given today’s grizzly Middle East, the possibility for improvement exists. He queries:

Do you see it? Do you?

At the press-night audience I attended, no one responded. Rod-Larsen said “Good.” What might that mean? Since it can’t really be termed politically correct, perhaps the playwright has invented a new category: wishfully correct.