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Dramatic diplomacy

 The cast of "Oslo," at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in New York (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/Redux)

Theater

Dramatic diplomacy

"Oslo," up for seven Tonys, offers the right antidote to both cynicism and idolatry of politics

At a time when political discord seems to find its way into every dinnertime conversation, a new Broadway play explores the world’s most intractable political divide: that between Israelis and Palestinians. Oslo recounts the top-secret back-channel talks in Norway that led to the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, a story drawn from the playwright’s relationship with some of the negotiators.

The original play by J.T. Rogers is a financial hit—always tough for shows without musical numbers or a built-in audience—and it has garnered seven Tony nominations (the Tony Awards are on June 11). It has an open-ended run on Broadway and will open in London’s West End in the fall.

The 1993 peace accords didn’t lead to lasting change, but Rogers’ play is a warm and well-executed endorsement of the idea of building relationships with your enemies. The setting is a Norwegian hotel where Israeli and Palestinian representatives secretly met for months. Between arguments over Jerusalem and terrorism, the hotel cook interrupts with waffles that break the tension. 

A play about diplomacy sounds bone-dry but Oslo has the feel of a political thriller, with fast-cutting scenes and furniture whirling on and off the stage. Some curse words, too, are a feature of these backroom talks, but that is a real-life attribute of political staffers I’ve met. A dinner table continuously rises and falls from center stage, and here comes coffee, and there go more waffles, and here comes whiskey. 

All the elements are here for that Tony award for best play, with cast leads Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays undergirding the staging and script. The second half of the play is long, but it is survivable due to the entrance to the negotiations of the lightning bolt Israeli diplomat Uri Savir, played with verve by Michael Aronov, who is also up for a Tony award.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/Redux

Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays in "Oslo" (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/Redux)

Rogers could have portrayed central character Terje Rød-Larsen (Mays), the Norwegian diplomat who arranges the secret talks and keeps them going when tempers flare, as some sort of Scandinavian diplomatic ideal. Instead Terje is as complex as many political staffers I’ve met: someone a little preoccupied with himself and his reputation, who also sincerely wants to help reconcile the Israelis and the Palestinians. Mona Juul (Ehle), married to Terje and a diplomat herself, is the glue to the entire deal—she’s a great female character in this world of men.

The play’s only political agenda is reconciliation, and it allows both sides to air genuine grievances—a feature of any healthy relationship. It’s notable that the play is running in the Jewish neighborhood of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, without controversy. The negotiators from both sides are empathetic, even as real atrocities are happening in their home countries. At various moments news footage from killings in Israel during negotiations flash on the screen behind the stage. As the hotel meetings are ongoing, the negotiators intentionally keep the Americans in the dark and in the process keep most U.S. politics out of the play.

But wait: The play isn’t an escape from politics, or an attempt to float above politics. It strikes an uncynical balance between valuing what politics can do and not idolizing it as the ultimate solution to the world’s problems. The negotiators made political progress, but the problem was bigger than anything they could hammer out in a Norwegian hotel.