Review: ‘Oslo’

Palestinian representatives Ahmed Qurie (Anish Jethmalani,from left) and Hassan Asfour (Amro Salama) and Israeli representative Uri Savir(Jed Feder) struggle to agree on key points of their negotiations in TimeLineTheatre Company’s Chicago premiere production of J.T. Rogers’ Tony Award-winning OSLO, directed by Nick Bowling, presented at Broadway In Chicago’sBroadway Playhouse, September 10 – October 20, 2019. (Photo by Brett Beiner Photography)


Where: TimeLine Theatre
Company at the Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St.
When: through Oct. 20
Tickets: $35-$95
Phone: 800-775-2000

Theater Critic

Most of us probably remember the iconic photograph of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shaking hands in the White House Rose Garden with a beaming President Bill Clinton standing between them, his outstretched arms encompassing both. It was taken on Sept. 13, 1993, at the signing ceremony for the Oslo Accords.

But far fewer people know much, if anything, about the secret back-channel negotiations that led to those accords or, for that matter, why they’re named for the capital of Norway. That’s the subject of J.T. Rogers’ engrossing “Oslo,” winner of the 2017 Tony Award for Best Play. It is now enjoying a spirited Chicago premiere directed by Nick Bowling and co-presented by TimeLine Theatre Company and Broadway in Chicago.

While the men in the photo appear only in Mike Tutaj’s projections, Rogers’ cast of characters is large, and their conversations are complicated. He cannily provides us with guides who lead us through the events and timeline. They are the couple who actually instigated the behind-the-scenes talks and were interviewed by him: Terje Rød-Larsen, director of the Fafo Institute for Applied Sciences, and his wife, Mona Juul, at the time agency manager for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

As Terje, played by Scott Parkinson with an edgy mix of intelligence, impulsiveness, and hubris that illuminates why the others find him irritating, explains early on, the traditional organizational model to bring two seemingly irreconcilable sides together wasn’t working, but he’d come up with a new model based on the “personal.” Specific individuals, acting as themselves not as those they represent, would get together free of outside interferences to discuss each point of contention, as well as to share food, drink, and stories, so they can see each other for who they truly are.

Mona, beautifully embodied by Bri Sudia, narrates the back story and offers commentary, often adding the element of humor. Where Terje arouses anger, she diffuses tensions. The facilitator to his theorist, she is controlled, cautious, capable of putting things in perspective, and clever about getting the others, who all admire her, to do what she passionately believes is right.

The play starts with a gossipy dinner party that’s really a critical moment for the couple. They’re entertaining Johan Jørgen Holst (David Parkes), Norway’s newly appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, for whom Mona works, and his wife Marianne Heiberg (Juliet Hart), who works for Terje. (Mona’s deadpan aside to the audience is that Norway is a small country.) After telling a story about meeting Rabin that illustrates the danger of taking one side of a person for the whole person, Terje drops a bombshell. He and Mona already have initiated the secret talks between the Israelis and PLO without consulting Holst, which infuriates the new foreign minister.

Next there’s a flashback that takes Terje and Mona through a trip to the war-torn Middle East and up to this point, clarifying how their beliefs developed. Then the play launches into the negotiations and how they’re conducted. Compressed into nine months, they took place in many locations, but Rogers puts them mostly at Borregaard Manor, a country house outside of Oslo, sparingly designed by Jeffrey D. Kmiec. He also takes considerable dramatic license, but rather than omitting too much, he arguably includes more than is necessary, so the action bogs down in repetition at times.

Since Israeli law prohibited officials from meeting with members of the PLO (something that also affected the official channel of negotiations involving the U.S.), an Israeli economics professor, Yair Hirschfeld (Ron E. Rains), is sent to the early rounds of discussions, to the growing annoyance of PLO finance minister, Ahmed Qurie (Anish Jethmalani), who’s accompanied by Communist PLO comrade Hassan Asfour (Amro Salama). Nonetheless, as they start to make personal connections, the hostilities diminish, thanks in part to the wonder of waffles served by the cook (Hart) everyone comes to adore.

However, Qurie’s insistence on negotiating with someone higher up finally results in the arrival of Uri Savir (Jed Feder) from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the dynamics of the situation change drastically. An arrogant, super self-confident guy who sees himself as a kind of rock star, he clashes with almost everyone, especially when they all (the men, that is) drink a lot of Scotch together.

Jethmalani’s serious, intelligent Qurie and Feder’s smart-ass Savir both are terrific, and their arguments    fire up the evening. They virtually come to blows, then of their own accord, cool down with a walk in the snowy woods, one of the highlights of the evening dramatically and also in terms of design featuring Jesse Klug’s lighting and Tutaj’s projections.

Several others also get into the act, among them a lawyer for the Israeli side Joel Singer (Tom Hickey), who torments everyone with hammering out the details of an agreement, and Shimon Peres (Rains) himself. A few of the performances are a bit cartoonish, but most are good enough or better.

In many ways, “Oslo” itself illustrates Terje’s model of negotiation put into action. Unfortunately, as we all know, the Oslo Accords didn’t last very long, and the conflicts continue to this day. But one ray of hope we glean from the coda about what happened to everyone involved: Qurie and Savir have stayed in touch all these years.