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Oslo: Theater review by Adam Feldman
“You don’t make peace with the people you have dinner parties with,” says Terje Rød-Larsen (the plummy Jefferson Mays) to the Norwegian foreign minister, Johan Jorgen Holst (T. Ryder Smith). “You make peace with the people who bomb your markets and blow up your buses.” It is 1993, and Rød-Larsen, who runs a social-research foundation in Oslo, is explaining his hopes for back-channel talks he has secretly been facilitating between representatives of the State of Israel and of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who are officially forbidden from talking. His strategy, executed with help from his wife, Mona Juul (a radiantly self-effacing Jennifer Ehle), is to make the political personal by encouraging these sworn enemies to spend social time together—bonding over food, Scotch, family stories and delicious waffles—between their tense negotiations. Maybe dinner parties have a role in making peace after all.
The clandestine meetings depicted in J.T. Rogers’s informative and even-handed Oslo resulted in the 1993 Oslo Accords, famously sealed with a handshake between Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin and the P.L.O.’s Yasser Arafat. But neither of them appears in Oslo. Instead, we meet the people from the rooms where it actually happened. On the Palestinian side, they are Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi), urbane and chain-smoking, and Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani), a fiery Marxist. The Israelis include the young, brash Uri Savir (Michael Aronov), the implacable Joel Singer (Joseph Siravo) and a pair of haimish college professors played by Daniel Oreskes (who doubles as Israeli superdiplomat Shimon Peres) and Daniel Jenkins; Adam Dannheisser plays a key Israeli politician. Although the play is nearly three hours long, Bartlett Sher’s seamless cast of 14 keeps it from seeming dry, even when Rogers’s writing—fictionalized but often drawing very closely from published sources—slips into overt exposition.
The great breakthrough of the Oslo Accords was one of recognition: the P.L.O. recognizing Israel as a country, and Israel recognizing the P.L.O. as the voice of the Palestinian people. To get to that point, Oslo argues, the enemies first had to recognize themselves in each other. As Rogers suggests in a bittersweet coda, the Oslo legacy has not been one of unambiguous success. But as America and the world hurtle toward greater polarization, the play provides a small measure of hope. It’s about recognition, too, of what Rød-Larsen and Juul were able to build: a quaint lighthouse in the fog of war.
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (at Lincoln Center) (Off Broadway). By J.T. Rogers. Directed by Bartlett Sher. With Jefferson Mays, Jennifer Ehle. 2hrs 55mins. Two intermissions.
Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam