It’s taken a year and a half to reach New York, but with insurgency and civil war in Iraq continuing to dominate headlines, and no exit in sight for U.S. troops, “Stuff Happens” has only amplified its sense of urgent reflection. In a dense editorial that manages to remain even-handed while eloquently expressing an anti-war view, David Hare weaves the genesis of the Iraq war into provocative political theater. Dry yet impassioned, text-heavy yet bristling with vitality, this remarkable instant-history play is given a gripping presentation in Daniel Sullivan’s taut staging for the Public Theater.
In addition to updating the material to reflect subsequent developments and hindsight comments from the chief players, Hare has further tightened the work since previous productions. Under Sullivan’s controlled direction, the play’s dramaturgical lines have acquired new lucidity, while the definition of its real-life characters has been more deeply etched. Credit for the latter goes also to the superlative ensemble.
The staging is simple and effective. Designer Riccardo Hernandez has divided the Newman Theater into a central playing area flanked by two banks of seats facing each other. Minimal projections are used to identify location, with the only set elements 10 desk chairs configured into office or conference arrangements or pulled back to become part of the aud.
With its precision distinctions between public and private encounters, Pat Collins’ lighting also blurs the boundaries between players and spectators, frequently turning up the lights on the audience to deny us the possibility of being an impassive forum.
While the play’s focus is primarily the misuse of power and the contorted negotiations between George W. Bush and Tony Blair that preceded the bombardment of Baghdad by U.S. forces, its moral center is then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. Hare acknowledges a structural debt to Shakespeare’s history plays, but in Powell, he has written a failed hero whose political fate poignantly echoes the tragedies. Played with thoughtful gravitas by the charismatic Peter Francis James, Powell is a lifelong military man who sees the use of force as failure. He remains the dominant voice of reason and caution through the main action, before being kneecapped by Cheney and Rumsfeld.
One of the chief strengths of Hare’s meticulously researched writing — which mixes statements lifted from public record with imagined encounters behind closed doors — is its incisiveness in conveying a swift understanding of the key figures and then reinforcing those impressions as the ongoing “opening drama of the new century” proceeds.
Donald Rumsfeld (Jeffrey DeMunn) is an unapologetic bulldog, whose cavalier comment about rioting and looting in Baghdad gives the play its title. “In locker-room terms, Don is a towel-snapper,” says a friend.
Dick Cheney (Zach Grenier) is a wily observer, looking on silently for much of the action and then hurling his interventions like grenades. Condoleezza Rice (Gloria Reuben) is a coolly poised filter with an unreadable ideology and a telling yen for Brahms: “He’s passionate without being sentimental.” Of geo-strategist Paul Wolfowitz (David Pittu), a colleague observes, “The word ‘hawk’ doesn’t do Wolfowitz justice. What about velociraptor?”
Hare reserves his most complex assessments for Blair and Bush. Byron Jennings plays the British P.M. as a composed, articulate man given to careful rumination and irritable outbursts. The playwright firmly takes him to task for his ingenuousness in allowing himself to be made a puppet by the Bush administration.
Jay O. Sanders at first appears to be leaning a touch too heavily toward the down-home buffoon in his portrayal of the U.S. president, who latches onto accessible soundbites (“war on terror,” “axis of evil”) rather than more probing analyses. But the actor’s sly approach ultimately makes for more searing insights when Sanders reveals the able operator behind the verbally challenged cowboy.
There’s not a discernible weak link in the predominantly male cast of seasoned character actors — probably more recognizable from their numerous “Law & Order” appearances than their lengthy stage credits. Call them the Dick Wolf Players.
In his persuasive chronicle of the path to war as a fait accompli, in which the seeking of U.N. approval and WMD inspections in Iraq are recapped merely as protocol measures that delayed an outcome preordained by its White House architects, Hare has written a play that, in a quiet, measured tone, stirs feelings of anger, shame and despair. And as is so often the case, the Brit playwright’s vantage point as an outsider allows for acute observations of the changes wrought on the American psyche by 9/11.
Sullivan has skillfully shaped the play’s slow-building crescendo so that by the time its thesis about falsified intelligence, political manipulation, self-serving agendas and blatant disregard for potential losses has been fully elaborated, the impact is far more emotional than one would expect from an issues-based drama. This is the indefatigable Sullivan’s first job at the Public, and it’s a fertile marriage of director and material.
There are some sententious speeches that come down on both sides of the political divide. Most notable is a tirade by an angry journalist (Robert Sella) about Western self-absorption in refusing to examine the basic truth that an oppressed people have been delivered from a dictator and the road to democracy has been paved. Likewise the closing cri de coeur of an Iraqi exile (Waleed F. Zuaiter), lamenting that his dead countrymen go uncounted.
But even in its more didactic moments, “Stuff Happens” remains continually challenging, never simplistic. “A country’s leader is the country’s own fault,” says the final speaker, alluding as much to Bush as to Saddam Hussein. Near the end of the play, the chief perpetrators are literally lined up against a wall to be held accountable. But in the Iraqi’s statement and beyond, Hare apportions some of the blame for the war to all of us.