Susan Granger’s review of “Oslo” (Vivian Beaumont Theater/Lincoln Center)
The phone rings and, suddenly, representatives of the Palestinian Liberation Organization are talking with officials from the government of Israel through a remarkable conduit in Oslo, Norway.
J.T. Rogers’ new play imagines how Norwegian Foreign Ministry diplomat Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle) and her husband, sociologist Terje Rod-Larsen (Jefferson Mays), deftly organized the series of high-level, top-secret meetings that culminated in the signing of the historic 1993 Oslo Accords.
A riveting political drama revolves around these clandestine gatherings in which the unlikely participants not only negotiated peace terms but also did impersonations and told jokes. Their diligence led to the historic handshake between Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and PLO Chief Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in front of then-President Bill Clinton.
According to director Bartlett Sher, the idea ignited when Norway’s U.N. Ambassador Mona Juul and Terje Rod-Larsen told J.T. Rogers the largely unknown background history.
The initial encounters with lower-ranking officials take place at the Borregaard Estate, a chateau near Oslo, where even-tempered Mona and excitable Terje act as neutral hosts, while the cook (Henny Russell) delights the famished guests with fluffy waffles.
What made these talks work – when others failed – was utilizing the academic theory of gradualism, rather than totalism, which, as Terje explains, is rooted in the personal, not the organizational. Basically, that meant that each point of contention was addressed separately, by the participants as individuals, not as spokesmen for the sides they represented.
“It is only through the sharing of the personal that we can see each other for who we truly are,” he says. And, indeed, the cross-cultural friendship that these disparate men established in Oslo over a period of nine months continued.
The various locations are delineated on the stark set designed by Michael Yeargan with crimson-cushioned benches on the floor circling the stage. Kudos to costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Donald Holder, sound by Peter John Sill and Marc Salzberg and projections by 59 Productions.
Admittedly, its almost three-hour length could use some judicious editing, but, as an ensemble presentation, it’s a multifaceted gem!