The cast of Oslo
Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of J.T. Rogers’ Oslo
(running through Sept. 29) begins with a seemingly innocuous bit of table-setting. Two Norwegian couples share drinks together circa 1993: Sociologist Terje Rød-Larsen (Jeff Talbott) and his diplomat wife, Mona Juul (Kate Middleton); and incoming Norwegian Foreign Affairs Minister Johan Jorgen Holst (Ian Bedford) and his wife Marianne (Susanna Florence). They laugh and joke together, before two phone calls reveal that Terje has been setting up a secret back-channel negotiation between representatives of the Israeli government and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Holst’s response involves several choice expletives.
The reason those negotiations ultimately continue, however, with Holst’s blessing, is the essence of Oslo
’s fact-based story: Your willingness to trust, as Holst trusts Terje with a risky, impossible-seeming plan, is based on an individual, personal relationship. The narrative deals with Terje’s determination to build a new model for solving complex disputes, one based on people learning to look at those on the opposite side of a negotiating table as people. In secret discussions meant to offer both sides deniability, PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurie (Demosthenes Chrysan) and Israeli economist Yair Hirschfeld (Neal Benari)—with the Israeli side of the negotiation later taken over by deputy foreign minister Uri Savir (Ben Cherry)—make slow, complex progress in generations-old disputes by sitting not just across that negotiating table, but at a dinner table, sharing drinks and jokes.
Rogers keeps a densely-packed narrative moving fairly briskly over the play’s 3-hour run time, willing to stop occasionally for characters to provide a bit of expository description when needed. Karen Azenberg directs the production with similar forward momentum, keeping the focus on the characters with a simple set that’s rarely adorned with more than a few chairs and a table. Most impressively, she gives a large cast an opportunity for each player to make an impression, whether it’s Qurie’s fiercely communist associate, Hassan (Thamer Jendoubi) or Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres (Neal Benari).
If there’s any frustration in the Oslo
’s structure, it’s that Terje and Mona seem like they should be at the center of the story—explorers cutting their way through an entirely new path to making friends from enemies. Rogers slips in dialogue from Mona to Terje to emphasize that “it’s not about you,” yet there’s still an ever-shifting sense of who the protagonist of this story should be.
Then again, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. As the play’s coda addresses the events that ultimately undercut the historic accords, Rogers emphasizes the staggering number of pieces that had to come together in order for so much progress to be possible in the first place. In our own torn and divided nation, it provides something of a road map towards healing: It’s harder to dismiss someone’s cause, or treat him as less than human, when you’re simply sitting together, sharing a drink and a joke.