The play is all talk. Talk with a global purpose among ancient enemies, who manage to find common ground. Even though you know the outcome and future impact, J.T. Rogers’ play Oslo builds tension slowly, slyly. Oslo is the story of how the Oslo Peace Accords came about, through the initiative and manipulations of the Norwegian government—and in particular, by a talented pair of mediators. Directed by Nick Bowling and produced by Timeline Theatre, Oslo is on stage at the Broadway Playhouse. (It’s part of an arrangement where Broadway in Chicago subscribers get to see this local drama by one of our fine mid-size theaters in addition to touring musicals.)
Scott Parkinson gives a spectacular performance as Terje Rød-Larsen, a social scientist and director of a Norwegian think tank. Mona Juul, an official in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is superbly played by Bri Sudia, who occasionally steps stage front into a spotlight to enhance our understanding of what just happened or is about to take place. Juul and Larsen are married and their relationship itself is charming and thrilling, as they react to the excitement of their risky goal and the focused Juul keeps the sometimes jittery Larsen on track. .
The play opens with Larsen and Juul entertaining Johan Jørgen Holst (David Parkes) and his wife Marianne (Juliet Hart). Holst is to become Norway’s foreign minister and Larsen suggests to him that they make peace in the Middle East. How can we do this, they ask, when the U.S. has failed? Because we have the appearance of neutrality, Larsen replies, which the U.S. never does because it floods Israel with foreign aid. Larsen and Juul had already begun making contacts with Israel and the PLO to start the process. Holst is furious at first but agrees to let the process continue.
And so the story begins of the back-channel negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which resulted in the signing of a peace agreement in September 1993 and the symbolic handshake between the PLO’S Yasser Arafat and Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin in Washington.
Larsen describes his model as “rooted not in the organizational but in the personal. A process of negotiation 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.”
Once the two pairs of negotiators come together at a guesthouse south of Oslo, Larsen lays out the rules for the process,: “In that [meeting] room, when that door is closed, you will converse. Disagree. Worse. But out here we will share our meals, talk of our families, and light the fire…. My friends, I must insist upon this rule. For it is only through the sharing of the personal that we can see each other for who we truly are.”
On the PLO side, the negotiators are the PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurie (Anish Jethmalani) and Hassan Asfour (Amro Salama). For the Israelis, two professors from the University of Haifa: Yair Hirschfeld (Ron E. Rains) and Ron Pundak (Bernard Balbot). Later, as the negotiations proceed, the two professors are replaced by the blunt-speaking Uri Savir (Jed Feder), an Israeli diplomat.
The negotiation scenes are behind closed doors so we become acquainted with the participants as they eat, drink and converse about personal matters, telling jokes and family stories. The cooking of the guesthouse hostess Toril (Juliet Hart), especially her dessert waffles, further tempers the mood. The large supply of Johnnie Walker Black helps too.
Near the end, Savir and Qurie leave the meeting room to walk and talk. It’s very cold and snowing. Savir says, “I wish my father had lived to see this. You and me, here. Though he would not have been crazy about the weather. And Qurie responds, “It is a true tragedy that we were approached by the Norwegians and not the Californians.”
The negotiations addressed many difficult issues and ended with the agreement known as the Oslo Peace Accords—specifically a Declaration of Principles in which the PLO recognized the legitimacy of Israel and Israel recognized the PLO as the representatives of the Palestinian people.
Rogers’ play is brilliantly structured in two acts and many scenes, in which he steadily builds tension while creating moments of friendship and humor. Bowling’s direction is smart and slick with a talented cast that includes many doubled roles. Rear wall projections, lighting changes and quick furniture moves create the illusion of multiple spaces. Scenic design is by Jeffrey D. Kmiec, with projections by Mike Tutaj, lighting by Jesse Klug and sound design by André Pluess.
J.T. Rogers’ Oslo won the 2017 Tony Award for Best Play plus the New York Critics, Outer Circle Critics, Drama Desk, Drama League, Lucille Lortel and Obie awards. His other plays include Blood and Gifts, The Overwhelming, White People and Madagascar.
Oslo by Timeline Theatre continues through October 20 at the Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut. Tickets are $35-95; they’re available from Broadway in Chicago online or by calling 312-977-1710. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday with two shows on most Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Running time is 2 hours 45 minutes with one intermission.
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