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Theatre in Review: Oslo (Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse)

Daniel Oreskes, Anthony Azizi, Daniel Jankins, Dariush Kashani. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

At the exact moment when this country -- or the world, for that matter -- seems hopelessly polarized, comes J.T. Rogers' Oslo, a stunning account -- both intimate and panoramic -- of what can happen when deadly enemies dare to face each other across a negotiating table. The playwright has unearthed the hidden story behind the 1993 Oslo Accords, which, for a time at least, seemed to put Israel and the PLO on track toward a lasting peace treaty. Nearly a quarter of a century later, they still stand as a world-historic accomplishment -- which makes it all the more shocking that they were facilitated, under cover of secrecy, by a midlevel Norwegian diplomat and her academic husband.

They would be Mona Juul and Terje Rød-Larsen; as the play begins, she is an official in Norway's foreign ministry and he is director of the Fafo Institute for Applied Social Science, originally a research organization for the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions. During the years that she was based in Cairo, they absorbed everything they could about the Middle East; galvanized by the sight of an Israeli soldier facing off against an enraged Palestinian boy during a riot in Gaza, Terje makes a modest proposal -- that they attempt to facilitate a peace treaty between Israel and its mortal enemy.

The plan is marginally less crazy than it sounds. Mona and Terje have plenty of contacts on both sides, as well as a deep and sympathetic understanding of the warring cultures. Also, Terje has a theory that he is eager to test: "In international relations," he says, "most conflicts are negotiated using the model of totalism. All issues of disagreement are put on the table, all organizations, representing all sides, are at the table. The rules are rigid, the process impersonal, and time and again the results are absolute failure." His model "is rooted not in the organizational but in the personal. A system allowing the most implacable of adversaries to focus on a single issue of contention, resolve it, then move on to the next single issue, as they gradually build a bond of trust."

Terje's plan, which is madly ambitious and fraught with peril, involves creating an informal, back-channel line of communication to run alongside the official (and notably unfruitful) negotiation concurrently taking place in Washington; outside of the glare of the media, all the really difficult issues -- sovereignty, security, the status of Jerusalem -- could possibly be thrashed out. There's no reason it should happen, except it does: True, the PLO sends a pair of highly placed officials, while Israel deploys a pair of unknown academics, but a beginning is made. (The choice of two Israeli economics professors highlights the radioactivity of Terje's plan. It is illegal for Israeli officials to speak to members of the PLO. Yossi Beilin, the deputy foreign minister and Terje's contact, is acting for foreign minister Shimon Peres, who has left Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the dark. And this is only the intrigue on one side of the talks.)

Astonishingly, real progress gets made, even as the process teeters perpetually on the edge of collapse. As Terje notes, "When you unleash the personal, the Furies can come out." And so they do: Long-held grievances are aired and passionate denunciations are made. And, as the discussions become more intensive, the Palestinians demand more highly placed negotiating partners, a request that nearly derails the entire plan. (For their pains, they get Uri Savir, director general of the foreign ministry, a furious adversary who drags the discussion back almost to square one.) Mona is finally forced to reveal her activities to her boss, foreign minister Johan Jorgen Holst, putting her own career in jeopardy. An American diplomat horns in briefly, just to let everyone know the US is watching them with a not-entirely sympathetic eye. And Torje treads perilously near becoming a con man, making unfillable promises and telling outright lies to keep all parties at the table.

Oslo is less about political positions -- the well-known arguments that both sides have made for decades -- than the political process itself, what can happen when standard protocol is put aside and all the parties involved begin to treat each other as human beings rather than faceless enemies. In Bartlett Sher's cogent, swiftly paced production, a vivid gallery of characters is brought to life by a superb cast. The roles of Terje and Mona are especially tricky; although they are the lead characters, their task is to stay on the sidelines, quietly nudging the process forward. Jefferson Mays' Terje burns with idealism and excitement in the early scenes; later, one can trace the rising anxiety in his face like a fever chart as the effort threatens to fall apart. Jennifer Ehle's Mona is briskly efficient -- she often acts as narrator -- and is also possessed of a dry, devastating sense of humor. (Irritated by Savir's excessive need for secrecy, she murmurs, "As you know, every midlevel Israeli diplomat is a rock star in Norway.") But, when the occasion demands, she is also capable of leaning in, planting her palms on the table, and brutally informing both sides that "the world has washed its hands of this conflict, because they do not believe you can change." One of the most telling bits of staging features Ehle and Mays on separate telephones, listening in on each other's calls, switching receivers back and forth as they juggle their agitated clients.

This is a true ensemble piece, however, and everyone delivers. Michael Aronov is the seemingly mercurial Savir, one minute denouncing his PLO counterparts, the next gleefully announcing they can do business; in an especially chilling moment, he brutally dismisses Terje, pointing to the others and saying, "We are in this. You are watching." Anthony Azizi provides him with a formidable sparring partner as Ahmed Qurie, the PLO finance minister, who can turn a simple handshake into a complicated matter of protocol, yet who also quietly admits that if news of the talks gets out, he will most probably be killed. The scenes in which Savir and Qurie furiously trade concessions positively crackle; the moment when they realize what they might accomplish is deeply stirring.

The smart, incisive performances just keep coming. Adam Dannheisser is Beilin, cynically aware that the official negotiations are a sham and warily willing to try Terje's plan. Daniel Jenkins doubles as an officious Norwegian diplomat and an untidy-looking Israeli economics professor. Dariush Kashani is the PLO's resident communist, who nonetheless is won over by Norwegian hospitality ("Comrade Toril [the chef employed by Mona and Terje] is to food what Lenin is to land reform," he notes). Daniel Oreskes is both an Israeli academic with a taste for crude jokes and a wily Shimon Peres, who, caught in an untruth, suavely asks, "What is a lie but a dream that could come true?"). And Joseph Siravo is the tough-minded lawyer brought in to turn both sides' wish lists into minutely detailed reality, and who ends up nearly scuttling the deal altogether.

To keep the complex action moving at a headlong pace, Michael Yeargan has provided a simple, elegant set suggesting a salon in an Empire-style estate house; pieces of furniture are rolled on by the actors, resulting in lightning-quick scene changes. Donald Holder's lighting switches seamlessly between pinpoint zooms on one or two characters and broad washes that take in the entire company. The gray upstage wall of the set provides a screen for the projections by 59 Productions; perhaps because the images are so big, they are often delivered rather dimly, perhaps to avoid overwhelming the cast. But since they generally appear during scene changes, they mostly just seem hard to make out. Also, during certain scenes, a kind of wave effect is projected; however understated, it nevertheless proves distracting. Peter John Still's sound design, which includes sounds of urban battle and offstage applause, adds to the atmosphere without calling attention to itself. Catherine Zuber's costumes reveal the differing wardrobe choices of government officials on different levels.

American playwrights don't often tackle big, rangy historical dramas such as this, which makes Rogers' work even more valuable. (His plays include The Overwhelming, about the slaughter in Rwanda, and Blood and Gifts, about the struggle for control of Afghanistan in the early '80s.) Oslo represents a remarkable feat of research distilled into a gripping dramatic format and gifted with a three-dimensional viewpoint that allows every character to have his or her say. That Rogers ends Oslo with the clear recognition that the legacy of the accords is a mixed one -- he even entertains the possibility that it may have been a major mistake -- proves that he has the skill to match his ambitions. It's possible that this new season may offer plays as engrossing as Oslo, but it is unlikely in the extreme that we will get one with such an impressive breadth of vision. -- David Barbour

Update: Oslo has transferred to London's West End, where it is playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

(18 July 2016)

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