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Taut Drama of 'Oslo'

Anthony Azizi, Dariush Kashani, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Aronov and Daniel Oreskes (Photo by T. Charles Erickson from PR)

Anthony Azizi, Dariush Kashani, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Aronov and Daniel Oreskes (Photo by T. Charles Erickson from PR)

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With tensions mounting all over the globe, it may be a perfect time for the play Oslo to open at the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center Theater. It’s the very gripping – and true – account of the secret back channel negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in Norway that led to the Oslo Accords in 1993 and ’95.

A Norwegian sociologist, Terje Rod-Larsen, has the seemingly preposterous idea that he can broker peace if he can just get the Israelis and Palestinians together in a room outside of the spotlight. Instead of trying “totalism,” as he puts it, he will use “gradualism,” hoping for a series of small agreements that can lead to a more comprehensive one.

He needs his wife, Monica Juul, an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, as an indispensable ally in this quixotic undertaking. She not only has key diplomatic connections, she has both sex appeal and professional skill that inspire trust from the outsized personalities of some of the negotiators. And though there’s no sex involved, the whole process is a kind of seduction to get various parties to commit.

Because the Israelis can’t have any official contact with the P.L.O. and because there are high-profile official negotiations going on already in Washington, secrecy is imperative. Talks begin with non-governmental representatives, and higher-ups – in the Norwegian government as well as Israeli and the P.L.O. – get notified only as things get serious. More often than not, the higher-ups are furious and threaten to shut everything down. Miraculously, they continue. With the aid of waffles, copious amounts of liquor, and occasional jokes, they find a way to regard each other not as mortal enemies but fellow human beings.

The entire cast is uniformly excellent and largely unknown, with the exception of stage veterans Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle as Terje and Monica. J.T. Rogers’ script makes each of the 21 characters distinct, and though there’s by necessity a lot of historical exposition, it’s not difficult to follow. There’s a precedent for this kind of behind-the-scenes look at pivotal moments in history, yet Oslo has more tension than, say, A Walk in the Woods. Under Bartlett Sher’s taut direction, with smooth scene changes and projections, it feels very cinematic and, at the same time, almost Shakespearean.

There’s been some controversy about the Oslo Accords: were they fair and did they make a difference? The Israelis and the Palestinians don’t seem any closer now to a two-state solution. But as Terje says at the end, you can’t look at the past. Look at the horizon. Can you see the possibilities? Peace may be ever-elusive, but how can you not try? You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. Maybe someday the planets will align again as they did in 1993.