Almost a quarter century after the fact, the significance of the Oslo Accord of 1993 between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (memorialized in the famous photo of Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat at the South Lawn of the White House and a Nobel Peace Prize) is highly debatable. Even if the agreement did not lead to a lasting peace or resolve many contested issues, did some good come out of it, including recognition by Israel and the PLO of their respective legitimacy? Or did it instead intensify the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and lead to more violence, including Rabin’s tragic assassination by a dissenter?
J.T. Rogers, a politically oriented playwright who has written about the Rwandan Genocide and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, dramatizes the tense negotiations that led to the Oslo Accord in his long-winded (three hours long, two intermissions!) but smart, occasionally humorous and objectively observed ensemble drama Oslo. It is receiving its world premiere at Lincoln Center Theater’s Off-Broadway space, under the direction of Bartlett Sher, who is best known for the acclaimed Broadway revivals of The King and I and Fiddler on the Roof.
Rogers frames the play around Tarje Rod-Larsen and Mona Juul (played by Tony winners Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle), a married pair of Norwegian diplomats who are unexpectedly able to broker an evolving series of secret peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian representatives at a castle in Norway. In a program note, Rogers explains how he was introduced to Rod-Larsen by Sher several years ago and, upon learning firsthand of Rod-Larsen’s unknown role in recent history, was inspired to adapt it into a play.
The performances are excellent, and the spare, video-enhanced staging is seamless, accommodating swift changes in setting. The play may be dense and choppy, but a more narrow and delicate treatment probably could not have captured the scale and intensity of the political process. The excellent supporting cast includes, among others, Daniel Jenkins, Daniel Oreskes and Michael Aronov.
It’s easy to compare Oslo to Hamilton, which occasionally deals with parties from opposite sides of the political spectrum coming together, but the musical that first came to mind for me was Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Pacific Overtures, which covers diplomatic relations between the United States and Japan in the mid-19th century and perfectly captures the feeling of being the fly on the wall during an important historical moment in the brilliant song “Someone in a Tree.” But unlike Hamilton or Pacific Overtures, Oslo slowly and meticulously covers the negotiation process, going back and forth between the parties and to the bargaining table until a resolution is reached – even if (in hindsight) that resolution does not live up to its initial promise.