UPDATE: This article was originally published on May 3, on Sunday it won best play at the 2017 Tony Awards
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NEW YORK — On September 13, 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin grimly gripped the hand of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, while U.S. President Bill Clinton looked on, beaming. Somewhere nearby, out of the spotlight, a pair of unassuming Norwegians observed the improbable fruits of their labor. Were it not for them, that handshake wouldn’t have happened.
This surprising story, and the unlikely married couple behind it, are the subject of the gripping new play “Oslo” by J.T. Rogers, which premiered off-Broadway in June 2016 before opening on Broadway in April. This week, the show garnered seven Tony Award nominations and is a front-runner for Best Play. Critics have hailed “Oslo” for its deft dramatization of the year-long secret negotiations that led to the first agreement between Israel and the PLO. Ben Brantley, writing in The New York Times, praised its “ability to disseminate such intricate details of foreign policy without turning snoozy.”
The show manages this feat by telling a familiar story from an unfamiliar perspective — that of Mona Juul and her husband, Terje Rød Larsen, the Norwegian instigators and orchestrators of the talks (played by Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays, who were nominated for leading actress and leading actor, respectively). They are the narrators of “Oslo” — speaking to the audience, giving context, sharing gossip — as well as the playwright’s inspiration. Rogers was introduced to the couple several years ago by director Bartlett Sher (also nominated) and created the play based on their little-known account of the talks. (A film adaptation, also directed by Sher, was announced recently.)
At the height of the first intifada, which began in December 1987 and continued for several years, Juul was a Norwegian diplomat stationed in Cairo and Larsen, a sociologist, was conducting studies on the living conditions of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Through their respective positions and projects, they developed close ties with Israeli officials and with members of the PLO. Israelis and Palestinians had been holding talks in Washington for two years, since the Madrid Peace Conference in October and November 1991. But they were going nowhere.
Part of the problem was that the PLO was not officially involved, even though “they were still the ones pulling the strings,” said Juul in an interview printed in the play’s program. The organization, then in exile in Tunis, was nearly broke and Arafat was itching to be recognized as the leader of the Palestinian people and return to Gaza. “They wanted to be brought into the game,” Juul said. “And that was what we were able to do.”
Circumventing the Americans, Larsen contacted Yossi Beilin, an Israeli Labor Party member of Knesset and protégé of then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who agreed to send academics Yair Hirschfeld and Ron Pundak for secret, unofficial talks. Representing the PLO were senior officials Ahmed Qureia and Hassan Asfour. (A third PLO participant, Maher al-Kurd, does not appear in the play.) Eventually they are joined by Uri Savir, the brash, slick, 40-year-old director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry (played by Michael Aronov, Tony-nominated in the featured role category). As a representative of the Israeli government, his arrival makes the proceedings official — and, in Rogers’ telling, a bit wackier.
“Oslo” is less interested in what was agreed upon, and more interested in how. Rogers focuses on Larsen’s philosophy of negotiations, called “gradualism,” in which participants agree to small points and slowly move forward as trust builds. (This is in contrast to “totalism,” where all issues are on the table at once.) Part of that strategy involved prioritizing personal relationships and intimate environs, aided by copious food and drink. Whiskey and Norwegian waffles play strategic roles in the show.
In an account of his experience, Savir (the real one, not the character) wrote of Larsen: “He explained that humor was an important element in the talks, and that the interchange should be informal.” Rogers follows Larsen’s lead, and the result is that “Oslo,” for all the seriousness of its subject, is remarkably funny, delivering regular laughs by amping up its characters’ eccentricities, slyly subverting tense moments or literally telling jokes (“A rabbi says to a Buddhist priest ...”).
That strategy proved successful for the participants — in addition to the Declaration of Principles that came out of the talks, the pragmatic Qureia and the fiery Savir formed a friendship that continues today — and it proves successful for “Oslo,” too, which feels less like a history lesson and more like a witty political thriller.
But it’s hard not to see “Oslo” as a contemporary tragedy as well, given the way history has unfolded. In a brief coda, the play jumps ahead to acknowledge that the impossible triumph just dramatized ultimately failed to deliver. Juul wonders whether Norwegian good intentions did more harm than good. But Larsen still sees hope on the horizon. In showing how it happened before, “Oslo” shares his cautious optimism, and suggests that it can happen again.