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NY Theater Reviews

Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott/ Photo: Larry D. Horricks. HBO

PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

By BRIAN SCOTT LIPTON

J.T. Rogers’ award-winning 1996 play – telling the complex story of the 1993 Peace Accords – gets adapted for HBO.

As the recent fighting between Palestinians and Israelis has once again proved, the odds for true peace in that area in the world seem to dwindle with every passing year. Not even periods of truces or, more hopefully, the kind of short-lived agreements forged in 1993 have stopped a cycle of unspeakable violence. The seemingly little-known story of how the 1993 Peace Accords were engineered by Norwegian sociologist Terje Larsen and his wife, diplomat Mona Juul, was told with dazzling complexity (and a lot of fictional dialogue) by J.T. Rogers in his award-winning 1996 play Oslo, which has now been brought to slightly dimmer life in a streamlined, two-hour film version (premiering on HBO and HBO Max on May 29).
 
Sleekly directed by its original helmer, Tony Award winner Barlett Sher, scrupulously well-acted by both of its stars, Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott, and an ensemble cast, and sumptuously shot by Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski on a variety of stunning locations, the film warrants a look from anyone who saw the play in its Broadway and Off-Broadway runs. And it is essential viewing for anyone who doesn’t know the source material, as one of the true thrills of Rogers’ script is that it has the power to make us feel as if we are watching a championship-level chess game where the board could be thrown over any second.

On one side of that board are PLO chairman Yassir Arafat’s right-hand men, the passionate if ultimately level-headed Ahmed Qurie (superbly embodied by Salim Dau in an Emmy-worth turn) and the hot-tempered Hassan Affour (an often terrifying Waleed Zuaiter). On the other side, the players include the wily Israeli minister Uri Savir (portrayed with an effective mixture of bravado and vulnerability by Jeff Wilkenbush), no-nonsense lawyer Joel Singer (Igal Naor), and eventually, the strong-willed politician Shimon Peres (the ever-impressive Sasson Gabay).
 
To Rogers’ credit, he manages to deftly carve out how these men have been defined by their life experiences – which explains how difficult it is for them to make any sort of political compromise, yet ultimately makes it “easy” for them to bond over waffles and Scotch. Sadly, if the film version has one major flaw, it’s that both Larsen (played with puppy-dog earnestness by Scott) and Mona (brought to life by a remarkably intelligent, pragmatic yet deeply human Wilson), have lost some of their dimensionality in translation. Only in a near-final scene in which Mona must stop the men (through a beautifully crafted speech) from giving up entirely do we really understand how these two are vital players (despite Mona’s attempts to maintain neutrality) in these negotiations.
 
While Oslo remains a thought-provoking and rewarding piece of work, one must nonetheless admit that John Lennon proclaimed its message in a lot fewer words: “Give peace a chance.” May we all listen!