As of this writing, southern Israel has been bombarded by more than 650 rockets and has launched airstrikes against Hamas in Gaza. The number killed and injured is mounting. Hard as it is to imagine now, there was a moment 26 years ago, when if felt like a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians was at hand.
“Oslo,” J.T. Rogers’ 2016 play, details the secret talks that lead to that historic moment in 1993 when Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, shook hands on the White House lawn. A two-hour and 50-minute play about the Oslo Accords sounds like a grim look at the back-channel sausage-making of politics. But Round House Theatre’s scintillating production, which is on stage at the Penn Quarter’s Lansburgh Theatre through May 19, is brisk, moving and surprisingly amusing treatment of what could be a seemingly dry political treatise.
As theater, dramatizing the events leading up to the Oslo Accords is outstanding. I will refrain from commenting on the political veracity of the production, which features portrayals of the real players, including Joel Singer, the Israeli delegation’s legal adviser, who has gone on record stating that most of what happens on stage never occurred in the negotiating room. Thus, “Oslo” draws on perceived truths and the imagination of playwright J.T. Rogers in the same way that Shakespeare’ royal plays retell history as vivid drama, with little historical accuracy.
“Oslo” is less treatise and more fast-moving whodunnit and how, pitting two teams of negotiators against one another the tension mounts. The teams were brought together by Norwegian mid-level diplomat Mona Juul and her think-tank researcher husband Terje Rod-Larsen. Both outsiders, their single-minded commitment to solving the Israeli- Palestinian impasse is portrayed as movingly admirable. They have no skin in the game, but have pulled out all stops to provide a safe and secret haven for the negotiating teams to meet in a well-appointed and isolated winter chalet outside of Oslo.
Erin Weaver plays Juul with implacable affability. She’s tough-minded but evenhanded and, while she’s the only woman with power in this male-dominated episode, she is also the only one to keep her composure throughout. Cody Nickell’s Rod-Larsen brings a coolly collected presence to his character who promotes his bridge-building concept called gradualism, but sometimes nerves get the best of him.
The negotiators — initially a pair of bumbling but sincere Israeli academics (actors Sasha Olinick and Gregory Wooddell) and the PLO’s finance minister Ahmed Wurie and his communist party colleague Hassan Asfour (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh and Ahmad Kamal) – perform and uneasy diplomatic dance.
Wurie states, movingly, “I have never met an Israeli face to face,” while the academics Hirschfeld and Pundak are there because it would have been illegal for any government official to meet with PLO members. What’s unspoken there is that the men, Israeli and Palestinian, have shared and fought over the same land for generations. And the desire for peace feels real on both sides.
Round House artistic director Ryan Rilette moves the play along briskly, from Oslo dinner parties to Tel Aviv cafes to the spare negotiation table. Sometimes the pace is breathless. With a cast of 20, including recognizable bold-faced political players from Yossi Beilin (an all-business Alexander Strain) and the late Shimon Peres (Conrad Feininger, both tough and unpretentious), Rogers’ script feels like living history.
Misha Kachman’s spare modernist set, with its back wall of windows that features Jared Mezzocchi’s newsy projections of reports from Gaza to bird’s eye images of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and the calming snowy Norwegian woods, keeps the dialogue wedded in its time and place. The sleek Nordic modern furniture that glides on and off effortlessly allowing scenes blend and switch with near cinematic finesse.
The conversations, though, are far from effortless. But as the key negotiators seek common ground — sometimes it’s found in the delicious late-night waffles and Jack Daniels the Norwegian caretakers serve — they discover a common enemy: the Americans and the race to keep these meetings out of the news.
As negotiations proceed, Uri Savir becomes the Israeli government’s chief negotiator. In Juri Henley-Cohn’s hands, he’s too much of a caricature: the typical cocky Israeli, over-confident and openly flirtatious with Juul, even in front of her husband. Other supporting roles, from broad-shouldered security guards to the chalet’s bumbling Norwegian caretakers and loud-talking American diplomats, show where the playwright’s sentiments lie.
“Oslo,” which received the 2017 Tony Award for best play, is instructive on the delicate and carefully choreographed planning involved in bringing political foes to the negotiation table. And there’s likely no better moment or city for this play than now in Washington, when fractious politics override thoughtful negotiating. Swamp-ridden U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle could glean much from the back story that produced the Oslo Accords.
Ultimately, nations don’t make peace; people do. That’s what Rogers shows us. And Juul was relentless in her commitment to forge dialogue, have the negotiators break bread together, share drinks and personal stories. She is made out to be the true fulcrum that brought these mortal foes together. The Oslo negotiations were dominated by men more accustomed to undercutting or overcoming their enemies. Juul, with Larsen, made every effort to keep everyone comfortable — jokes, family stories, hopes for their children – but the tension mounts. “Israel will never have security without peace,” claims Qurie. His Israeli counterpart, Savir replies: “Israel will not negotiate the sovereignty of Jerusalem.”
The arguments are recognizable — clipped from op eds and headlines, but as Qurie replies: “We cannot escape each other … This is our fate … we are entwined.” The impasse seemed insurmountable, but the men at the table found a way, bit by bit to craft an agreement. Yet, even that defining moment on the White House lawn nearly didn’t happen. Both Rabin and Arafat nearly walked out moments before the signing. This is the stuff of good drama.
Rogers closes “Oslo” on a hopeful note: telling us members of the negotiation teams forged lasting friendships. They had hoped to change the world. Alas, the world changed but peace didn’t hold. A generation after the historic back-channel negotiations waged peace, Israelis and Palestinians are further apart than they’ve been in years. In the play there’s a moment when Qurie is on the phone with Arafat who has agreed to proceed, when Savir asks, “What’s that sound?”
The reply, “They [the Palestinian council] are crying. All of them.” Today we, too, cry, for Israel and the Palestinians are, yet again, on the brink of war.
“Oslo” through May 19, Round House Theatre, at The Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street, NW, Washington; tickets $54-$71; call 240-644-1100 or visit roundhousetheatre.org.