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Recent State Department figures show fewer than 9,000 aspiring U.S. embassy workers took the foreign service exam last year, down from a peak of more than 22,000 in 2009.
As evidence this might be a problem, one could use common sense. Or go see the outstanding bureaucratic potboiler play Oslo, which suggests that empowering smart, passionate mid-level diplomats is the world’s only hope for peace.
J.T. Rogers’ drama about Norwegian diplomats who worked behind the scenes to broker the 1993 Oslo peace accords, which aimed to resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine, won the best new play Tony Award and received six additional nominations in 2017. The play has subsequently been staged in London, Tel Aviv, and across the United States. Round House Theatre won what was likely a bidding war to stage the D.C. premiere, and this production deserves a Nobel Prize of its own.
Now is the time to invest your time and ticket money in Round House, not only because the company has done such outstanding work in recent years, but because its Bethesda facility is closed for renovations, and this season’s final two plays are conveniently on stage at the Lansburgh Theatre on 7th Street NW.
Round House artistic director Ryan Rilette directed Oslo, and made the genius move to pitch every performance in a just-slightly exaggerated manner, from the caretakers of the rural Norwegian estate hosting the secret summits (Kimberly Gilbert and Todd Scofield), to the suited sunglass-wearing Israeli fearful he’ll be recognized at an Oslo hotel.
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“Because, as you know, every mid-level Israeli diplomat is a rock star in Norway,” Mona Juul (Erin Weaver) huffs sarcastically, speaking in direct address to the audience. Weaver stars as the Norwegian diplomat, now working at the United Nations, who serves as both the play’s narrator and its emotional center. It’s a tricky dichotomy to pull off, but she excels at it with help from her onstage husband, Terje Rød-Larsen (Cody Nickell). They’re the only characters not played with the aforementioned touch of stereotyping. Yes, Rød-Larsen has typically great taste in Scandinavian footwear (“I adore your shoes,” purrs Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres (Conrad Feininger), when he makes his Act II entrance), and always folds his pocket square, but he’s presented as a relatable person rather than a character, an earnest international relations specialist using his position at a think tank—and his brilliant, beautiful wife—to convince Israelis and Palestinians with bruised egos (and dead relatives) that they should pursue peace after 50 years of violence.
There are only three women onstage in Oslo, compared to 12 men. Given that several actors play multiple characters, the ratio feels more like 20 to 5. Thus the drama falls into the genre of Men in Suits Plays, a category that includes Camp David, a diplomatic snooze fest Arena Stage presented in 2014, and Stuff Happens, David Hare’s sprawling 2004 epic about closed-door meetings leading up to the second Iraq war.
Oslo is superior for many reasons. The playwright gets a healthy assist from this cast, Rilette, and Misha Kachman’s minimalist, efficient, and evocative sets—so mid-century modern!—but Rogers made the timely, pivotal choice to make Mona his axis. Every dude onstage is in awe of her, to some degree. If she has to tango with an Israeli womanizer to push this deal through, she will, but she’ll keep her suit pants on. Rogers holds such obvious affection for both his characters and his audience, and he never forgets that his goal is to distill a complicated story for a theater full of people. Even for those who were oblivious school kids when all this went down in 1993 (like me!) or for those who went into the theater skeptical about celebrating a 26-year-old peace accord in fucked-up 2019 (also me).
Despair and hope coexist in Oslo. If that was possible between Israelis and Palestinians 26 years ago in Norway, maybe it’s still possible in Washington today.
To May 19 at 450 7th St. NW. (240) 644-1100. roundhousetheatre.org.