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.