“The president has moved on … and I think, frankly, much of the country has moved on as well.” This line, spoken toward the end of David Hare’s chronicle about going to war on the basis of falsified intelligence, is an important reason that this play needs to be seen and heard. The worst result of war is public indifference and amnesia, and Hare has written a deeply felt, rigorously researched reminder of governmental manipulation and ineptitude.
As drama, the U.S. premiere of “Stuff Happens” isn’t as shocking as it was when first presented at London’s National Theater on Sept. 15, 2004. Most of the facts are familiar, and at three hours the show is uncomfortably long. The repetitive second half tries to cover too many details, and as scenes grow increasingly clipped and short in an effort to incorporate all relevant info, the production begins to feel like a series of bulletins issued at board meetings.
What makes the play work is the blend of piercing, in-depth observations and artfully integrated material from actual transcripts. Rumsfeld defines his attitudes with “I liked what you said earlier, sir … a war on terror. That’s good, that’s vague. That way we can do anything.” Dick Cheney (Dakin Matthews) comments, “I never met a weapons system I didn’t vote for.” Condoleezza Rice memorably remarks, “I am determined to leave this office without anyone figuring out where I stand on any major issue.” This verbal marksmanship is wittily consistent, and Hare hits his targets with unerring accuracy.
The progression of events, emphasizing 9/11 and speculation about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, are sparked by an effective scene involving nervous Tony Blair (Julian Sands). Blair demands a dossier containing concrete evidence about these weapons before considering military action, and Sands makes the prime minister’s panic palpable as he tackles the issue with President Bush. His anxiety also is credibly conveyed when he tells Bush the British have tracked down bin Laden, only to be ordered by competitive U.S. forces to abandon the capture and pull out.
Keith Carradine impressively projects Bush’s tunnel vision. Beneath his good-old-boy cliches and banalities is the man who says, “I’m the commander. … I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.” In his encounters with Blair and with Colin Powell, Carradine maintains a thunderously convincing silence. Without a word, he lets you know an uncompromising course of action has already been settled in his mind, and any contact with those voicing alternative viewpoints is simply an exercise in lip service.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Carradine’s major scene with Tyrees Allen’s Powell. The former secretary of state is Hare’s hero, a man who urgently cries, “I want my country to be less arrogant. … Three thousand of our citizens died, but that doesn’t give us the license to behave like idiots.” He becomes the dominant figure of the play. Allen’s intense portrayal creates a whole human being, and ultimately a tragic one when his logical reasoning crashes and collapses on deaf ears.
Some characters create stronger impressions than others. Matthews is hampered by writing that fails to make Cheney as imposing a personality as he is in real life. He seems, oddly, to have only a minor impact on the president. Rice emerges as much more of an influence. Her relationship with Bush, beyond their religious, God-invoking bond (exemplified by Toussaint’s a capella version of “Amazing Grace”) isn’t drawn with much depth, but Toussaint shows the calculation and cunning beneath her beaming smile.
Higgins’ Rumsfeld, who utters the immortally callous titular statement “Stuff happens,” in response to looting in Baghdad, is a believably intimidating schemer. Kip Gilman holds the stage strongly as Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense, and Alan Oppenheimer plays weapons inspector Hans Blix with honest understatement.
More colorful and interesting than most of the major participants is Stephen Spinella’s Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister who clashes with Powell at a luncheon and says, “By the time we get to the pastry, you’ll be on your way to putting some 60,000 military personnel into the region.” Spinella places a vibrant spin on Hare’s dialogue and becomes the personification of amiable but unbending leadership.
In his final directorial venture for the Taper, Gordon Davidson keeps the atmosphere realistic, so that even one-liners have a ring of truth rather than coming across as gratuitous comedy. He tries to give as much balance as he can to a play that preaches powerfully to the converted, a play that solicits reactions so bluntly that the crowd cheers, hisses and applauds throughout, as though responding to show-stopping musical production numbers.