If someone told you to run down to the Lansburgh Theater to see a three-hour play about back-channel diplomatic negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Army (PLO), you’d probably think they were a wee bit bonkers. Or stimulation-deprived.
That’s precisely what I’m telling you to do—peel yourself away from “Game of Thrones” and take in a different kind of battle royal between sworn enemies, J.T. Rogers’ Tony award-winning play, Oslo, bracingly directed by Ryan Rilette and featuring a sublime ensemble cast working at their peak of power.
Whether you’re a diplomatic historian or someone, like me, who dimly recalls the 1993 Oslo Accords from the famous Rose Garden photograph of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat shaking hands while a smiling Bill Clinton looms in the background trying to herd them closer together, Round House Theatre’s production of Oslo is a riveting ride, full of high-stakes maneuvers and juicy details about behind-the-scenes negotiations.
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And it all takes place in Norway, somewhere usually not synonymous with sizzle. There, level-headed and calmly determined diplomat Mona Juul (Erin Weaver, bringing intelligence and laser-sharp focus to the role) and her husband Terje Rod-Larsen (Cody Nickell, playing Larsen with complexity and cheer), an amiable academic, use Norway’s reputation for neutrality to help broker peace in the Middle East.
Larsen is itching to try out his new negotiations theory, Gradualism, which uses baby steps to build trust on both sides of warring parties. The couple decides to test the theory with the combustive PLO and Israel, which have been killing each other for 50 years with no end in sight.
Perhaps they could have picked a more modest guinea pig, but not a more significant or symbolic one. If Palestinians and Israelis can come to the table with the end goal of peace, then what else are we capable of?
The fact that the Oslo Accords did not last long doesn’t detract from the shimmering heat and fascination this play generates. The notion that a small group of people opened up the possibility of peace where it once seemed impossible makes for good drama and speaks volumes about humanity’s capacity to bring about small miracles.
Negotiations begin with two humble economics professors (Sasha Olinick and Gregory Wooddell, a gently comedic duo) pitted against PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurie (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, in a masterful performance of delicacy and fire) and his sidekick Hassan Asfour (Ahmad Kamal, drolly uttering Communist rhetoric at every turn).
The rigidly defensive and proud Ahmed starts to unbend after a rapport is established and the neutral ground of snowy and remote Norway begins to work its odd magic. Misha Kachman’s set captures the sleek serenity of Scandanavian design, enhanced by Jesse Belsky’s Nordic lighting.
There is plenty of humor—both wit and bawd—in the play and a prime example is when the two parties first meet and Olinick attempts to break the ice by talking about the weather. He speaks of the warmer climes of the Middle East and Ahmed snaps back that he hasn’t been able to go home for years—oops—but then acknowledges that yes, to the best of his recollection, the weather is warm.
As negotiations progress, Israel starts taking things more seriously and sending in a big gun—Uri Savir (the electrifying Juri Henley-Cohn), the Israeli deputy foreign minister, who swaggers like a rock star amidst the swarm of men and women in crisp suits.
When the Israeli lawyer Joel Singer (the shark-like John Taylor Phillips) arrives, it is both funny and excruciating. We’re trying to change history here and you’re asking us who is going to take out the garbage in Gaza? But the beauty of this is in all the nit-picky details—if everybody’s worrying about trash and tax collection, then this stuff is getting real.
Oslo closes May 19, 2019 Details and tickets
What also delights about Oslo is its balancing of traditional male and female elements. The negotiators are united by Johnny Walker Black and schoolboy jokes (macho), but also bowed by Mona’s tact and empathy (feminine), not to mention nourished in more ways than one by housekeeper Toril Gandal’s (Kimberly Gilbert, bringing style and smarts to this role and as a politico’s loyal wife) good cooking and late-night, détente-making homemade waffles.
Oslo speaks stirringly of the power of dialogue and connection, as well as the trust that can build from either something as complicated as diplomatic negotiation or something as simple—and affecting—as two men from opposite sides sharing the same name for their cherished daughters.
Oslo By J.T. Rogers . Director: Ryan Rilette . Featuring: Cody Nickell, Kimberly Gilbert, Todd Scofield, Erin Weaver, Gregory Wooddell, Alexander Strain, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Michael Sweeney Hammond, Sasha Olinick, Ahmad Kamal, Juri Henley-Cohn, John Austin, John Taylor Phillips, Susannah Morgan Eig, Conrad Feininger. Scenic Designer: Misha Kachman. Costume Designer: Ivania Stack. Lighting Designer: Jesse Belsky. Sound Designer/Composer: Matthew M. Nielson. Projections Designer: Jared Mezzocchi. Props Master: Kasey Hendricks. Dialect Coach: Dawn-Elin Fraser. Fight Choreographer: Casey Kaleba. Dramaturg: Gabrielle Hoyt. Assistant Director: Susannah Morgan Eig. Resident Stage Manager: Che Wernsman. Stage Manager: Rachel S. Hamilton. Produced by Round House Theatre at the Lansburgh Theatre in Washington. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.