Marin Theatre Company's 'Oslo' Is Entertaining But Not Crazy Enough

I have a close, old friend who has deep convictions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She’s traveled to Palestine, witnessed what’s happening first hand, and has talked to many, many people. Everything she says about what’s going on is terrifying and dismaying.

My problem is I never quite know how to respond to her when the subject comes up, as it invariably does. And it’s not for fear of disagreement or that I don’t know anything about what’s going on, though I don’t know enough. The problem is that I have a hard time caring. I hate to admit it, but I just don’t care in the way that I should. I believe this is wrong, morally and ethically indefensible, but I would be lying if I claimed otherwise.

So I wondered as I was crossing the Richmond Bridge listening to Kanye West, the Make-America-Great-Again Rapper, if J.T. Rogers’ Oslo, receiving its Bay Area premiere in a sharp production at the Marin Theatre Company, could, maybe, make me care just a bit more.

I know that’s a strange request to make of a play, though it turns out not to be an all-together out-of-left-field proposition. Based on a true story, Oslo charts the machinations of two Norwegian diplomats—Terje Rod-Larsen and his wife Mona Juhl—who decide that they care. And on top of that that they’re in the perfect position to broker a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, because their country, Norway, is kind of a nothing country.

It’s a fascinating refutation of the usual liberal refrain of I-want-to-do-something-but-I-just-don’t-have-enough-power line. They have some power: he runs an institute; she’s in the Norwegian Foreign Service. They do not, however, have official sanction from either their own country, the Americans, or any one in the Middle East.

They just have an idea and an unlikely one at that—to bring the Israelis and the Palestinians to the negotiating table by turning the whole idea of negotiation into an unofficial discussion, a kind of negotiation that’s not happening even though it is. Rogers rightfully sees that idea, or wistful insight, as an antidote to helplessness and the moral and political stagnation that comes from it.

Of course, it’s always the big what-ifs that propel social change and dramatic conflict. When Rod-Larsen counters Juhl’s initial common sense reaction that such a plan would have little chance of working, he urges action no matter how quixotic. It’s a refreshing ethical claim: “No, it is not probable. But if there is even a two-percent chance, how can we not take it?”

And so they go ahead.

I couldn’t even begin to recount the plot that follows. We come in knowing that the Oslo Accords were signed in a public ceremony at the White House presided over by PLO leader Yasser Arafat, the Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Rabin, and President Bill Clinton in 1993. So, kind of happy ending; though we also know that the conflict and the killing have gone on and on in spite of this brief triumph, and so, not so happy after all.

Rogers chooses to end the play with Rod-Larsen directly addressing the audience with the knowledge of the present moment in mind and all the brilliance that hindsight offers:

My friends, do not look at where we are; look behind you. There! See how far we have come! If we have come this far, through blood, through fear—hatred—how much further can we yet go? There! On the horizon! The possibility! Do you see it? Do you? Good.

As endings go that’s kind of rousing in a we-must-always-persevere way and there’s no doubt that the skilled Rogers catches the drama of high stakes diplomatic negotiations. The play is always engaging, but as I was driving back over the Richmond Bridge listening to Mozart’s Requiem, the Oslo experience began to seem only that, an easily tossed aside experience.

And I couldn’t help but think that there’s another play lurking inside this one, nastier, more alive, less fair-minded, and memorable enough to force the most jaded of us to care. Because right now, in this Oslo, what we care about are negotiations. They could have been between East Timor and Australia, or a couple of boys trading baseball cards. There’s a way in which the Israelis and Palestinians are incidental to the entire experience.

This isn’t because Rogers doesn’t care, or doesn’t understand his history, or gets lost in an ideological fever dream (if only), or that he’s incapable of capturing the complexity of his Israeli and Palestinian characters (he’s so respectful); it’s that in the end no matter how well written, the whole Oslo affair is just background dressing, the wallpaper to the drama of negotiation itself. And there’s something barbaric about that, that this piece of entertainment (and it is entertaining, expertly so) should use blood and death and repeated diplomatic failures to sidestep true engagement.

The problem cuts to the heart of what we consider serious playwriting in the American theater and serious art in general. Success comes down to the weight of the subject matter and nothing could be weightier and more intractable a problem than the Middle East. But it’s precisely the hushed tones of serious reflection that keep us away from, well, actual reflection.

There’s an exchange early in the play that catches what Oslo could have been, a direction that Rogers is clearly aware, but suppresses. The Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin is explaining to Rod-Larsen how difficult and absurd Israeli and Palestinian negotiations are. Rod-Larsen blurts out, “What you are describing sounds like a farce.” To which Beilin responds, “It’s more than a farce, it’s bullshit.”

That seems right: it’s quite a missed opportunity that Oslo isn’t a farce that plunges us into bullshit, which might be the definition of farce. All the elements are there—the almost hysterical and over confident Rod-Larsen; his deadpan diplomat wife Juhl whose entire career is riding on her husband’s crazy gambit; the Israelis and Palestinians who refuse to engage in the negotiations that they are obviously engaged in, and the ridiculously high stakes of it all.

It’s a grand circus of idiocy and hope, but Rogers is constantly muting all that for moral seriousness. We need real aesthetic daring, tastelessness, foolishness, and vision to catch the barbarity of the political and not this ready-made decorum where we nod at the end about how much humans can accomplish. We could easily turn that middlebrow wisdom upside down and say, “Look how far we’ve come in killing.” Oslo is skilled and at times engaging, but you will not care more or less about anything you think or feel after it’s done.

And that’s a political and aesthetic indictment.

As always, if you feel this is wrong, please write in and tell me.

‘Oslo’ runs through October 28 and the Marin Theater Company in Mill Valley. For tickets and information click here.