'OSLO' Tells The Surprising Story Behind A Historic Handshake

Aug 6, 2016
Originally published on August 6, 2016 10:05 am

In September 1993 Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn. It was an iconic moment — two mortal enemies had come to terms on a historic peace agreement.

That agreement was forged during months of secret back-channel talks in Norway. A new off-Broadway play, OSLO, looks at this little-known part of the peace process.

The most important piece of scenery in OSLO is a door: On one side, the negotiations, on the other; a husband and wife who never cross the threshold.

"You enter the story through their human point of view ..." says director Bartlett Sher. "They're your entry point."

The idea for the negotiations came from the couple — Terje Rød-Larsen was a sociologist and academic, Mona Juul, was a young foreign service officer. She had been posted to Cairo, where they got to know people on both sides of the conflict.

When official talks between the parties in Washington, D.C., stalled, the couple arranged for both parties to meet secretly in Norway without the initial approval of their government.

It was "exactly the opposite way of what it was done in Washington," explains Rød-Larsen, now president of the International Peace Institute. "We did not put proposals on the table. We said we would facilitate, bring the parties together, be go-between, assist them in any way, saying: It's your problem, you have to resolve it yourself. We don't want to push anything on you."

To focus on trust and personal relationships, the delegations could only have three people per side, Rød-Larsen explains. They lived in the same house, ate every meal together, and took breaks together.

"They had to live together," Rød-Larsen

The sociologist was testing a theory, but playwright J.T. Rogers says the story behind OSLO is anything but a dry, academic treatise.

"It was very clear that it was a thriller, because it was — the ticking clock is the dramatist's friend," Rogers says.

The actors who play the Norwegian couple, Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays, say it feels like a thriller every night.

"We are continually surprised by this play; the doing of it," Mays says. "It feels like an ambush. We never know exactly what's going on or ... what's coming next. I have a copy of my script backstage at all times that I continually refer to."

"I have little cheat sheets in my pocket that tell me what's coming next," Ehle adds.

Mays says the play feels like "a wild improvisation."

OSLO is based, in part, on extensive interviews playwright J.T. Rogers did with Rød-Larsen and Juul. He wanted to explore the intersection of the personal with the political.

"The hope was to make a political play in the Greek sense of that word — a play about the public and the larger ideas about who we are, as human beings and as nations," Rogers says. "How do we go forward and how do we live, with our enemies and with ourselves?"

Director Bartlett Sher is glad OSLO depicts history in all its complexity, rather than a "Hollywood version of how this great thing was accomplished."

Sher says both he and Rogers felt they couldn't show the script to the couple ahead of time. Juul — who's the current Norwegian ambassador to the U.K. — hasn't seen the play yet, but Rød-Larsen has.

"This is not a documentary, so many of the scenes there never took place or took place in a different way ..." Rød-Larsen says. But, he believes the playwright, the director and the actors have captured the spirit of Oslo "tremendously well."

It was a spirit of optimism, Rød-Larsen says; Oslo was all about bringing the right tools and handling those tools properly. Even when problems seem unsolvable, he believes there are solutions.

"Sometimes the impossible is easier to do than the possible," Rød-Larsen says. "If you have resilience and are persistent, you can do things that nobody believes."

Critics and audiences have responded to that message; the off-Broadway run at Lincoln Center is sold-out and it was just announced that OSLO will move to Broadway next spring.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

PETER SAGAL, HOST:

And now the game where we ask talented people to do things they have no talent for. It's confusing to everyone. We call it Not My Job. So Keegan-Michael Key was a star performer with Second City here in Chicago before he gained fame on "MADtv" and then in the hit show "Key & Peele," which led eventually to him performing his presidential anger translator with the actual president. He is starring in the new movie "Don't Think Twice." We are delighted to have him with us. Keegan-Michael Key, welcome to WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: I should say welcome...

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: Hello, Chicago. Hello, Chicago.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: I should say - I was about to say welcome back.

(CHEERING)

SAGAL: I want to say also - I want to point out, with some pride and shame, that before leaving Chicago, you had a little stint as a panelist on a little show called WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.

KEY: I did a couple of times. I certainly did two or three times until, you know, until we parted.

SAGAL: Yeah, didn't quite work out.

KEY: I mean, Peter, you and I can talk privately later, if you want too.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: All right. I just want you to know that we take credit for everything you've accomplished.

KEY: (Laughter) And well you should. It's where I honed my wit, yes.

SAGAL: When - I want - you became really fantastically well-known for "Key & Peele." And you - I mean, it was amazing 'cause I was like, oh, yeah, Keegan-Michael Key. I know him. And the next thing I know, you were on the cover of, I think, Time Magazine.

KEY: Yes, that was crazy. I was not expecting - we were not expecting that, that we got to be on the cover of Time for the - some essay we wrote. We also were on the cover of Time for the 100 Most Influential People in the World or something in 2014. It was crazy.

SAGAL: Oh, something like that, you know. Oh, I can't quite remember what it was that might have landed us for the second time on the cover of Time Magazine.

KEY: You're right. I don't know. We might have been number 46. I don't know. I'm not...

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: I'm just saying.

BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: I was on the cover of Time Out Magazine.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDTHWAIT: I don't want to brag.

SAGAL: So there are so many things about "Key & Peele," we could just talk about some of the amazing sketches. We should cut right to the chase, which is your anger translator sketch in which, Jordan Peele, your partner, played the president. Where did you come up with this idea for the sketch and tell me exactly, in your view, who are you playing?

KEY: OK, so I'm playing a guy named Luther who is from Detroit. And we remembered, and I cannot remember his name, it was Senator Wilson who said you lie during the State of the Union address.

SAGAL: Oh, yes. It was a congressman named Joe Wilson from North Carolina.

KEY: Congressman Joe Wilson, that's it. And we thought - now, see, the president's stuck between a rock and a hard place. He can't express himself or he'll catch hell for it. So what if we could invent a surrogate for the president who can get angry for him instead? And that's how Luther was born.

SAGAL: It must have been - it wasn't the last White House Correspondents' Dinner. It was the one before that, maybe in...

KEY: The one before. It was the one before, yeah.

SAGAL: ...In 2015. You actually did this sketch, when you translate the president's anger into words, with the actual president.

KEY: Right, yeah. And I got to rehearse with the president for, like, 10 minutes. And he just comes in the room and he's like, there he is. That's my boy, Key.

(APPLAUSE)

FAITH SALIE: Wow.

KEY: He runs over to me and gives me a hug. And, of course, he hugs me and then I go, oh, God, I hope there's not a red dot on my forehead. He's hugging me. He's hugging me.

SAGAL: So there was a point, though, prior to you performing with the president where you found out that the president was watching your sketches about you and the president and liking them. And how did that feel?

KEY: Well, that was crazy because we we were given the opportunity to meet him in 2012. And the thing that really got us - the thing that just melted me and Jordan's hearts is that he looked at both of us and he said, I've got to tell you, it's hard to be a brother on TV. Hard to be a brother on TV.

SALIE: Wow.

KEY: And then, at the end of the experience, he was reading the teleprompter - you know he does those kind of digital fireside chats?

SAGAL: Yeah.

KEY: And he was reading the teleprompter. And in the middle he went (imitating clearing throat) and had to clear his throat. So he asked one of his aides to hand him a bottle of water. He unscrews the bottle of water, takes a sip and then he feigns as if he had been poisoned by the water.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: The president of the United States did a bit?

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: He did a bit. He did. He went - he drank his water, went (moaning), no, I'm kidding, guys. I'm kidding. That's a joke.

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: And Jordan leans over to me and goes, this brother's over here doing bits.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Well, Keegan-Michael Key, we could talk to you all day, but we can't because we've really invited you here to play a game we're calling...

BILL KURTIS: Bet You Don't Know These Peels, Friend.

KEY: So you are partnered very successfully with, of course, Jordan Peele. So we thought we'd ask you about other peels. Get two of these peel-oriented questions right, you'll win our prize for one of our listeners - Carl Kasell's voice on their answering machine or voicemail. Bill, who is Keegan-Michael Key playing for?

KURTIS: William Fitzpatrick of Miami, Fla.

KEY: William Fitzpatrick of - OK, a good Irishman, all right. Here we go.

SAGAL: All right, here we go. Here's your first question. The first peel is the Peel 50. That is the world's smallest car. It was made in the 1960s. One of the most interesting features of this three-wheeled vehicle was what? A, if you parked it on a sewer grate, it could fall through; B, instead of a reverse gear, you got out of the car, walked around, grabbed the handle, pulled it backwards, walked back in, got it and drove off; or C, instead of looking through a windshield, the driver's head poked up through the roof and you looked around that way.

KEY: Ah, OK. I am going to go with C.

SAGAL: You're going to go with C, that instead of a windshield, you actually just poked your head up through the roof.

KEY: And I'm trying to read your syntax, Peter...

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: ...Which leads me to believe that I should then say B.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: I was really trying to be neutral, but apparently I gave it away 'cause it is B, in fact.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SALIE: Nice.

HELEN HONG: Wow.

SALIE: Nice.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: No, it's an amazing thing. The Peel 50 is a tiny little car and it was so light that users could get out, pick it up and pull it backwards when they had to go in reverse.

KEY: Amazing.

SAGAL: It's not very safe. Your next peel is Sir Robert Peel. He was an early 19th-century British politician whose legacy is still felt to this day. He gave his name to something. What was it? A, he founded the British police force, which is why British policemen are still called bobbies; B, he was the first person to import oranges into Britain, which is why they are said to have peels; or C, he was the first person to brush his hair to fall on either side of his face, framing it nicely, which is why we call that a haircut known as the bob.

KEY: Interesting. I'm going to go with A because that, I don't know, it sounds the most plausible to me.

SAGAL: A was the one that the British police force were named bobbies?

KEY: Yes.

SAGAL: And you're right.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL, APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Robert Peel, known as the father of the British police and that's why they're called bobbies. Your last peel is John Peel. He was a very famous and influential British DJ. He died about five years ago.

KEY: Yes.

SAGAL: He discovered singer Billy Bragg when what happened? A, he bet somebody he could make anybody into a successful pop act, including, why, this waiter right here; B, he said on the air one day he was quite hungry and the unknown Bragg brought him a curry; or C, he heard Bragg singing in the shower of the next apartment over and went and banged on the door to ask for a tape.

KEY: I think it's A.

SAGAL: You think it's A that he bet somebody he could make anybody into pop singer, including this guy right here.

KEY: Including this guy right here.

SAGAL: I like that idea, but it was, in fact, B.

KEY: It was B?

SAGAL: It was B. He was on the air. John Peel had a very popular radio program. He was broadcasting live. He said, oh, I'm quite hungry. I didn't get dinner. Billy Bragg, who was an unknown singer said, aha. Went out, got a curry, brought it to the studio and a demo tape, gave him the curry and the guy listened to the tape. And the next thing you know, Billy Bragg was making records. That's what happened.

KEY: That's amazing.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: That's pretty great, seizing the moment. Bill, how did Keegan-Michael Key do on our quiz?

KURTIS: Oh, he got 2 out of 3 right. And as he knows from his experience here, that's a winner.

SAGAL: Yes, indeed. We're very forgiving.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Keegan-Michael Key is starring in the new movie "Don't Think Twice." It's in select cinemas now. You should go see it. And if you haven't, go over to Comedy Central. You can watch all of the "Key & Peele" sketches online for free. They are amazing. Your day will be gone. Trust me on this. Keegan-Michael Key, thank you so much. So great to talk to again. Congratulations on everything.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: We'll talk to you soon. Bye-bye now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SAGAL: In just a minute, Bill slips into something a little more comfortable. It's the Listener Limerick Challenge. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT to join us on the air. We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.