In the aftermath of the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which were signed on September 13, 1993, in the White House Rose Garden, there was hope that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might finally start moving toward a solution and ceasefire; this was reflected in the famous photograph of President Bill Clinton standing between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and head of the PLO, Yasser Arafat, as they shook hands. The road leading up to that handshake is explored by playwright J.T. Rogers in Oslo, a play that tells the story of behind the scenes maneuvering by a married pair of Norwegian diplomats, Terje Rød-Larsen (Jefferson Mays) and Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle).
Oslo lasts three hours and has two intermissions, and it leads you through many details of what it took to get Israeli officials and PLO leaders talking to each other and negotiating in secret in the early 1990s. All the performers in a large cast here work hard to give this material a sense of urgency, but all they finally seem to be doing is moving chairs and tables on and off and telling us and each other what is happening now and what will be happening next. This production moves fast, but it still seems to go by at a glacial pace— and that’s mainly because Rogers has failed to dramatize the situation and the relationships between the key players.
If Oslo had been written and performed soon after that historic handshake between Rabin and Arafat, it might have had a claim on our attention as the story of a heroic, obscure couple working stealthily to resolve a deadly conflict where so many other blustery and public officials had failed. But you have to ask yourself why this story is being told in such depth over twenty years after the Oslo Peace Accords have been made to look like a photo op and no more in an ongoing struggle that continues to take lives on both sides. The play ends with a grim recitation of the many killings and flare-ups between the Israelis and Palestinians since 1993, and so Oslo begins to seem like a sad and moot tale of well meaning people who were in over their heads.
The main failing of Oslo is that it does not make the conflicts between the individual characters come alive in any but the most conventional ways. The sprightly Mays does an English accent and seems to be acting in a drawing room comedy while Ehle does a good Norwegian accent while plying her estimable warmth and theatrical vitality in the vacuum that surrounds her; they never seem like they are an actual married couple and we don’t learn much of anything about their relationship beyond their role in the peace talks.
Some of the actors playing the Israelis and the Palestinians lean heavily on flashy and stereotypical behavior to get across the heavy-handed points of both factions, particularly Michael Aronov as the excitable Uri Savir and Dariush Kashani as Hassan Asfour, who erupts periodically into strident and very loud Communist rhetoric. Sadly, Oslo the play is like the Oslo Peace Accords themselves: a gesture toward resolution but finally an exhausting exercise in futility.