Written by: J.T. Rogers
Directed by: Joel Greenberg
Starring: Jonas Chernick, Patrick Galligan, and Omar Alex Khan
Venue: Studio 180 Theatre and Mirvish Productions, CAA Theatre, Toronto
An Israeli and a Palestinian walk into a room. They greet each other warmly. They tell funny stories. They share their delight over some exquisite after-dinner waffles. No, it’s not a joke. It really did happen – after a fashion – in a country estate outside the Norwegian capital of Oslo in 1993. It was there that negotiators for the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, putting aside their historic enmity, met in secret to hammer out the peace process that became known as the Oslo Accords.
Those back-channel talks are thrillingly imagined – from their near-violent disagreements to their occasional waffle-savouring rapprochements – in J.T. Rogers’s witty political nail-biter Oslo. The 2017 Tony Award-winner, now onstage at Toronto’s CAA Theatre in an engrossing production by Studio 180, succeeds in turning dry diplomacy into juicy, edge-of-your-seat drama. More than that, however, it resonates in these angry, divisive times. It’s an inspiring account of how two long-bitter enemies were able to come together, hash out their differences and find a way forward. Think of it as the intellectual’s Come From Away.
True, the process that started in Oslo ultimately fell apart, Israeli-Palestinian relations eventually relapsing into the bloody clashes of the Second Intifada less than a decade later. But Rogers’s play reminds us how tantalizingly close Middle East peace once was and reveals the strategies, unorthodox and audacious, that almost made that seeming miracle happen.
The audacity comes courtesy of Terje Rod-Larsen (Blair Williams), a Norwegian academic who believed progress could be made if both sides were able to get to know one another and focus on one issue at a time. To test this theory of “gradualism,” he enlists his wife, Mona Juul (Marla McLean), an official in Norway’s foreign ministry, in a plot to have Israeli and Palestinian representatives meet for a clandestine round of talks at Borregaard Manor south of Oslo.
The Palestinians bring their A team to the table – PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurie, a.k.a. Abu Ala (Sanjay Talwar) and official liaison Hassan Asfour (Omar Alex Khan) – but are disappointed to find the Israelis have only sent a couple of economics professors from Haifa. Although the talks go well, Qurie is soon insisting that Israel upgrade its representatives to government officials. He gets more than he bargained for, first in the provocative Uri Savir (Jonas Chernick) from the foreign ministry, then in hard-headed legal adviser Joel Singer (Alex Poch-Goldin), who has the ear of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
American playwright Rogers, the son of a political-science professor, treats every twist and turn in the negotiations as a cliffhanger. And indeed, when both sides bring a legacy of hatred into the meeting room, the air is thick with tension. When, in a moment of after-hours levity, Savir does a mocking impersonation of PLO chief Yasser Arafat, you hold your breath, wondering if the Palestinians will explode. Whenever the manor’s beloved cook Toril (Sarah Orenstein) shows up with her consensus-building waffles, you breathe a sigh of relief.
After last season’s disappointing King Charles III, Studio 180 is back in top form for its latest off-Mirvish offering. Director Joel Greenberg’s production moves at a cracking pace for most of its two-hour-and-25-minute running time. Designer Ken MacKenzie keeps the decor simple with one elegant all-purpose room and a large back wall for Cameron Davis’s scene-setting projections. Thomas Ryder Payne contributes a suspense-laden score.
It’s the acting, though, that drives the piece. Rogers packs the stage with colourful real-life characters and Greenberg has mustered an excellent ensemble to play them. Chernick is a wiry, flamboyant Uri Savir, swaggering into the talks like a rock star. Talwar is charming as his Palestinian counterpart, Abu Ala, who possesses the Arabic love of flowery metaphors.
As the flawed hero Terje, a smooth Williams is not above being devious or smug. His ego is kept in check by McLean’s no-nonsense Mona. There is strong support from such skilled hands as Patrick Galligan, Jordan Pettle and Geoffrey Pounsett. The only misstep is Amitai Kedar’s Shimon Peres impersonation, which belongs on Saturday Night Live.
There’s a lot to absorb in Rogers’s assiduously researched play and by the middle of Act 2 it gets close to information overload. But, when we finally arrive at the historic handshake between Rabin and Arafat outside of the White House, anyone who remembers that time is bound to get a little choked up. As Oslo reminds us, that peace pact, however fragile, was a testament to what can be achieved when people stop hating and start listening.
Oslo continues to March 3 (mirvish.com)