… at the gates of war … 

No conflicts seem more stubbornly unsolvable in modern politics and history than the hostilities between Israelis and Arabs.   How fascinating that there were, in fact, secret negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, enabled by idealistic,  peace-seeking Norwegians, that resulted in a signed agreement in 1993, the first of the Oslo accords.   Oslo tells the that story in such a way that the audience is caught up in the suspense of high stakes history.

We learn early on about two Israeli academics whose research demonstrates that peace between the Israeli and Palestinians wouldn’t just mitigate violence but would benefit both sides economically.  With these studies as a starting point, Norwegians in their country’s foreign service, convinced that giving representatives of the opposing sides the opportunity to know one another personally will enable cooperation, invite representatives of the Israeli government and the PLO to meet secretly in Oslo.

The Norwegians provide a place for talks and human comforts, good drink and food — Norwegian pancakes play a large role in drawing together these diplomatic representatives on a personal, and progressively warmer level.  The diplomats become friends while not “giving in” to one another’s political demands. There’s give and take: they make some compromises but hold their ground on the non-negotiable issues.

As progress toward an agreement is made, diplomats at even higher levels arrive to hammer out the make-or-break details.   The Americans become involved toward the end and – it’s history — the signing of the Oslo Accord took place in September 1993, with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signing for Israel and Yasir Arafat signing for the PLO, the “first-ever peace deal between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization,” as the playwright writes in his program Note. In a famous photograph, dramatized in this play, Rabin and Arafat shake hands in the Rose Garden of the White House, in the presence of President Bill Clinton.

Knowing the satisfactory, even thrilling ending — which tragically dissipated later, but that’s another part of  history — makes all the more interesting the ins-and-outs and progress and setbacks of the negotiations, through which, ultimately, the PLO agreed to recognize Israel’s right to exist and Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians.

The characters, in representing historical figures, sometime seem like mouthpieces for their points of view rather than coming to life in their own terms.   Two actors, Anthony Azizi as the dominant PLO representative and Michal Aronov for the Israelis, bring charisma and an enlivening free-wheeling body language to their roles which go far to keep the play from seeming too talky-talky.

The two Norwegians most involved in the success of the negotiations are the most fully drawn as characters but, in terms of what the play’s about, they’re peripheral, so their emotional journeys don’t strengthen the sense of human drama as much as if they were more central.  Oslo is occasionally engaging emotionally, but it’s always interesting as the ideas and interplay, underlined by the life and death importance of a good solution, keep our minds engaged.   You have the sense throughout of learning something you really want to know, and of being glad the author has made that a stimulating event.

Oslo plays at the Vivian Beaumont theater in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center through June 18, 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.