“This is the Middle East. They don’t do peace,” says a character at the beginning of “Oslo,” the diplomacy nailbiter now at the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center.
The reality that the Oslo Accords did not bring what most people consider genuine peace to the region shadows this highly entertaining play, but playwright J.T. Rogers does not dwell on Oslo’s ultimate failure, nor on the tragic assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, a direct result of the agreement. Instead, Rogers fills the play with lots of gossip, colorful characterizations, and funny one-liners to create an amusing and suspenseful drama based on the historical event.
The Oslo Accords, the first peace deal between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, resulted in the 1993 iconic image of Israel’s prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, grimly shaking hands with a grinning PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in the Rose Garden, with President Bill Clinton hovering over them. “Oslo” the play concerns itself with the secret negotiations that led the participants to that historic moment, most of which took place in a secluded castle in Norway.
Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays play the Norwegian couple who undertook the seemingly impossible task of bringing together representatives of the Israeli government and the PLO to work out a deal. As Terje Rad Larsen, a Norwegian sociologist and sometime diplomat, Mays is a perpetually bubbling spring of optimistic energy. Ehle plays his wife, Mona Juul, an official in Norway’s foreign ministry and the more cautious and level-headed of the duo.
Rogers focuses on the personal relationships between his characters, which gives him many opportunities for amusing anecdotes and intimate revelations. I don’t know if personal relationships are critical to successful diplomacy, but I’m sure that Rogers wouldn’t have a play without them. Relationships are at the heart of the matter, Rogers seems to believe. “It is only through the sharing of the personal that we can see each other for who we truly are,” Larsen says at one point, which is certainly true for the characters in the play, and may be true for diplomacy as well. Without personal connections, we are doomed.
Larsen and Juul got to know several of the major players on the Arab side when she was stationed in Cairo and he did a sociological study of conditions in Gaza and the West Bank. Once he convinces her that they have a chance to bring the warring sides together, he reaches out to two Israeli economics professors (Daniel Oreskes and Daniel Jenkins) and Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi), the PLO finance minister, who arrives with his Marxist colleague Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani). These men hesitantly start to talk in a closed room. Only after they have made some progress, does Larsen pull in Yossi Beilin (Adam Dannheisser), an associate of Rabin. Then we’re off to the diplomatic races.
The short scenes — 64 in all — shift quickly from meeting to meeting and from one set of characters to another. A very effective set by Michael Yeargan — simple and clever — keeps the audience’s attention focused on what’s going on. Tables and chairs disappear and reappear as the action trots along, and director Bartlett Sher keeps the pacing tight, tight, tight. It makes diplomacy seem like fun, which is quite an accomplishment.
Sher, the resident director at Lincoln Center Theater, originated the off-Broadway version at the smaller Mitzi E. Newhouse. Now the play has moved to the larger Broadway house upstairs, it is two acts rather than three, but still clocks in at close to three hours. You won’t be looking at your watch, though. The excellent cast of 14 (who play 21 characters) keeps the action moving, and the story is gripping by definition. How the original actors learn to trust each other, at least somewhat, and then involve their bosses in the deal, all while juggling the overbearing Americans and soothing a hysterical Norwegian foreign minister, makes for a great yarn.
Rogers nods at the tragic dimensions of this never-ending conflict in an epilogue at the end of the play, but that is not his overriding interest. Rather, he examines how difficult it is to overcome ancient fears and resentments, how intractable the opposing positions are, and how much optimism and faith are required to reach any diplomatic agreement. “Oslo” makes heroes out of the bureaucrats who slog onward day after day, learning about each other and each other’s cultures, trying incrementally to make the world a little safer and happier.