Theater Review: ‘Oslo’

The art of compromise laid bare
July 30, 2016 Last Updated: July 30, 2016

NEW YORK—While behind-the-scenes stories of how deals get made can be wonderfully interesting, the real surprise is often that they’re able to get made at all—even when both sides actually want the deal to happen.

Brilliantly exploring this situation is J.T. Rogers’s drama “Oslo,” now at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, which details the events that led to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). This fascinating examination of politics and human nature runs through Aug. 28.

The play shows itself to be a human drama leavened with humor.

In 1992, two Norwegians—socialist Terje Rod-Larsen (Jefferson Mays) and his diplomat wife, Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle)—after having previously witnessed an explosive standoff on the streets of Jerusalem, begin to explore the possibility of quietly facilitating off-the-grid negotiations between the Israeli government and the PLO. They hope to fashion a road map to peace.

While high-level talks were already going on in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere at the time, these did not include the PLO, which was considered a terrorist organization at the time. Yet everybody knew just how important a Middle East player this group actually was.

Using Norway’s political position as a starting point—the country supported both sides to a degree—Juul is able to convince Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi), the PLO finance minister, to meet with Yair Hirschfeld (Daniel Oreskes), an Israeli senior professor of economics.  

Over the next nine months, the two people talking becomes four, then five, and so on, as more and more people are drawn into these Oslo meetings—all with the tacit approval of higher-ups on both sides, and all held under the strictest veil of secrecy. The Israeli government officially refused to even speak to the PLO at the time.

(Foreground, L–R) Anthony Azizi, Dariush Kashani, Michael Aronov, and Joseph Siravo play negotiators in
(Foreground, L–R) Anthony Azizi, Dariush Kashani, Michael Aronov, and Joseph Siravo play negotiators in “Oslo.” (T. Charles Erickson)

As the play makes clear, an important starting point in any negotiation is to find common ground. This was not an easy task because many of those involved had never even met someone from the other side before.

But away from media glare and direct political pressure, common goals began to emerge. Mutual economic cooperation was needed if the two sides were to survive and prosper. And no one from either side wanted their children to be forced to continue a struggle that had been going on for generations.

In a particularly nice touch, Rogers’s text highlights not only the headline-grabbing issues, such as the legitimacy of Israel in Palestinian eyes and the question of Palestine control in occupied territories, but also more mundane matters. When it comes to running a government, how will matters of education, taxation, and garbage collection be resolved?

An important starting point in any negotiation is to find common ground.

Far more than simply political discourse, with preaching kept to a minimum, the play shows itself to be a human drama leavened with humor. (“Sometimes we are the pigeons, sometimes we are the statue.”) And the characters, many of whom exist in real life, come across as fully formed.

Although there are a few humorous swipes at the heavy-handedness of diplomacy (particularly when the American government is involved), much more powerful are the political realities brought forth.

One reality is that one does not make peace with friends, but rather with those “who bomb your markets and blow up your buses.” Another is that both sides realize just how much they have to lose.

(Foreground, L–R) Uri Savir (Michael Aronov), a member of the Israeli negotiating team and Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi), the PLO Finance Minister, while (back) Terje Rod-Larson (Jefferson Mays) looks on a step forward in peaceful relations. (T. Charles Erickson)
(Foreground, L–R) Uri Savir (Michael Aronov), a member of the Israeli negotiating team, and Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi), the PLO finance minister, while (back) Terje Rod-Larsen (Jefferson Mays) looks on at a step forward in peaceful relations. (T. Charles Erickson)

The play is tightly directed by Bartlett Sher, who wisely allows the story to take center stage.

Running almost three hours, each of Rogers’s scenes and situations feels essential. Necessary are the negotiations and the people introduced both outside and inside the room where they take place.

Necessary, too, is the bit of humanity that seeps in, such as when Ahmed Qurie and Uri Savir (Michael Aronov), a member of the Israeli negotiating team, find out they both have daughters with the same name. Not a moment feels wasted or extraneous.

Mays is perfect as Rod-Larsen, someone desperately trying to bring together the people necessary to reach a deal, but who can’t get involved in the negotiations himself, as much as he might like to.

Ehle works quite well as his more grounded wife, who tries to balance her diplomatic experience with the need to stretch protocol in order to help along the situation.

Azizi, Aronov, and Joseph Siravo are very good in their roles as negotiators. Each comes in with his own set of preconceived notions and expectations, but all ultimately put them aside in order to make the deal possible.

While the Oslo Accords are certainly not the be-all and end-all of the Middle East issue, another point the play makes quite clear is that they did demonstrate what can be possible, as well as what could be possible for the future.

Also in the cast are T. Ryder Smith, Daniel Jenkins, Henny Russell, Christopher McHale, Jeb Kreager, Dariush Kashani, Adam Dannheisser, and Angela Pierce.

‘Oslo’
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse
150 W. 65th St.
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com
Running Time: 3 hours (2 intermissions)
Closes: Aug. 28

Judd Hollander is a member of Drama Desk and a reviewer for stagebuzz.com