According to a famous study conducted by psychologist Arthur Aron two decades ago, all it takes to fall in love with someone is to stare at the person for four minutes and ask a series of 36 personal questions. “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers,” Aron and his co-authors wrote, “is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.”
J.T. Rogers’s new play, “Oslo,” re-creates something like a geopolitical test case for this theory, placing agents from both sides in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict in a room where they spend time getting to know each other, not only as holders of opposing positions but also as human beings with shared interests. The play also includes as key ingredients to the peace process a lot of good whiskey and Scandinavian delicacies, both waffles and a bevy of long-legged, sharp-witted, maternal Scandinavian women.
“Oslo” is a dramatization of the Oslo Accords, and the effort by a Norwegian powerhouse couple, Mona Juul and Terje Roed-Larsen, to achieve what the United States in its role as Middle East mediator was failing to do. The play takes place in 1992 and 1993, when Juul, who works for the Norwegian foreign minister, and her husband, Roed-Larsen, a director of the Fafo Institute, decided to intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after official negotiations held in the United States between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel stalled.
Roed-Larsen (his first name is pronounced Tyre, and he is played by the affable Jefferson Mays) has the ear of both the Israeli deputy foreign minister, Yossi Beilin, and that of the finance minister of the PLO, Ahmed Qurei, or Abu Ala (played by Anthony Azizi). He sets up the shadow peace process to the effort stalling in Washington.
After many meetings in London and Oslo, the Israelis and Palestinians begin to exhibit camaraderie and respect, and even begin to enjoy each other’s company. Into this mix is introduced the brazen, narcissistic Uri Savir (director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, played with real gusto by Michael Aronov), who is appointed by Beilin to make the talks more official. Yet, even this mercurial figure, who is at first profoundly skeptical, begins to work with the other side.
The conversations that take place during the almost three-hour-long running time of “Oslo” will hold the attention of those with an existing interest in the history of the Middle East peace process and the challenges that remain. The play also comes replete with Arafat and Kissinger jokes. But it struggles to convey larger moral implications. Rogers was clearly won over by the unassuming figures of Mona Juul and Terje Roed-Larsen. He takes them at their word that the Oslo Accords were the best thing that happened for Israeli-Palestinian relations. No inherent criticism of the Accords is permitted, and with this absolute certainty comes a lack of nuance.
“I think it’s also important, in order to restore hope a little in today’s world, to know that it is actually possible to bring two sides that have so much animosity together and help them make compromise,” Juul said in an interview included in the play’s program. Maybe the raison d’ etre for this play is to inspire future Juuls and Roed-Larsens.
A play about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a happy ending may seem hard to believe, and it does gloss over some important facts. Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian writer and lawyer writing for the LCT publication, notes that the Oslo Accords did not deal with one of the most important issues — the settlements. In her interview, Juul said that it was members of the PLO who first approached the Norwegian Foreign Ministry about creating a shadow of the Washington negotiations, yet Rogers does not credit them with this step.
Rogers’s previous play “Blood and Gifts” made the story of the first U.S. involvement in Afghanistan during the Russian morass relevant to the American struggles in that country. “Oslo,” Unfortunately, lacks the same historic weight and immediacy.
Oslo plays at Lincoln Center Theater through August 28.
Anna Katsnelson teaches world literature at Medgar Evers College.