nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 12, 2006
Whatever else you may think about David Hare's Stuff Happens, the fact that he's written a play that takes a serious, challenging look at the Iraqi War and other recent events—that he's put the subject on the table; that he's trying to stir up a conversation among theatre-goers about something authentically important—is cause for considerable admiration and acclaim. The first thought that went through my head when I read that the Public Theater was presenting this piece—and indeed, at intermission, after seeing its first half—was this: where's the celebrated American playwright writing a serious play about the War in Iraq?
Stuff Happens chronicles the history of this controversial war, from its roots in the terror attacks of 9/11 and before, right up to the present day. (I mean that literally: there's a line in the play that refers to something President Bush said on March 29, 2006, just two weeks ago.) The characters in this play are almost all real, famous people—Bush, Cheney, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet, along with their British counterparts, Tony Blair, foreign secretary Jack Straw, MI6 head Sir Richard Dearlove, etc. The story tracks how these men and women made decisions that led to the bombing of Baghdad in March 2003, and not at all incidentally how those decisions served to isolate Bush and Blair's governments from much of the rest of the world and, increasingly, from their electorates. (I should add that Hare does not shield the public from blame; at the very end of the play, an Iraqi man says, "A country's leader is the country's own fault." He's talking about Saddam Hussein, but the implication is explicit and worth considering.)
The play trades in political pow-wows and scripted media events that feel very familiar, the latter particularly so—we've all seen a lot of Stuff Happens already, on the news, over the past five years. Hare tells us in a program note that all of the public statements made by politicians within his play are verbatim, but most of the dialogue, whether his creation or not, feels authentic because all of the players have been given characterizations that jive with common public perceptions of them. (One might quibble that both Tony Blair and Colin Powell are presented with a touch more sympathy than the others, but ultimately they're depicted here as principled men who compromise/sell out in order to maintain their positions of power, which I think is how the liberal intelligentsia in the US and UK probably view them these days.)
Indeed, one of the reasons that Stuff Happens doesn't work satisfactorily as drama is the lack of a single heroic figure at its center. For a while it looks like either Blair or Powell will emerge as the protagonist of the play, but the facts let Hare down; neither man manages even to rise to tragic-hero status. It's only at the very end of his play that the author decides to intrude on his drama by inserting some much-needed perspective; Stuff Happens is never more effective than in this tiny scene, when Blair is chatting with a dinner guest at some unnamed public function:
DINNER GUEST: How do you feel about the 100,000 innocent Iraqis who have died as a result of the invasion?
BLAIR: I don't accept that figure. I've seen that figure and it's wrong. I couldn't sleep at night if 100,000 people had died.
DINNER GUEST: But you can sleep if 50,000 have died?
But as I said, the real value of a work like this is simply to place the problem before the theatre audience, to try to get a rise out of a war-weary public, to get us back to the energy level of a not-so-long-ago when millions of protesters took to the streets to try to prevent Bush's attack on Iraq. Hare expects the audience to laugh on cue at the George Bush jokes sprinkled throughout the play, but I think he's also hoping to stimulate a little engaged discourse as well.
Hare has set a difficult task for himself here, trying to make a story we know very, very well into compelling theatre, and I'm not sure he succeeds. A few soliloquies by unidentified characters form the heart of the play: a journalist wonders whether the ends justify the means in the toppling of Hussein's regime in Iraq; a Palestinian explains the conflict in terms of her nation's enmity with Israel. It's interesting stuff, but it lacks context, hovering around the main story without connecting to it—that is, until the final powerful speech by a man identified in the character list as an "Iraqi Exile," the man who talks about a country getting the leader it deserves.
Daniel Sullivan's staging isn't particularly interesting either: the Newman theatre has been transformed into a kind of arena with seats on either side of a bare stage on which the only furniture is a dozen plush red office chairs on wheels; side walls are used to project a few images that identify the locale. I guess the sparse set (designed by Riccardo Hernandez) helps focus us on the play's content, but it also emphasizes the paucity of bona fide action. 16 actors play dozens of roles (and narrate the play in Moises Kaufman-style call-outs that identify the speaker and the date; why not just project that information on the screens?).
Puzzlingly, some of the key characters are portrayed by actors who don't resemble the actual people they're playing at all (e.g., Jeffrey DeMunn, who plays Donald Rumsfeld as a scrappy overgrown Dead End Kid), while others are more or less impersonated by dead ringers (Gloria Reuben's smooth Condoleezza Rice). Byron Jennings and Peter Francis James do well by Blair and Powell; George Bartenieff is invaluable as Hans Blix, the closest thing to a hero on stage; and Brenda Wehle and Waleed F. Zuaiter stand out among the ensemble players. Robert Sella overdoes his French accent as UN negotiator Dominique De Villepin, however.
Is Stuff Happens worth seeing? I think so; even with its imperfections, it casts a necessary eye on events that are still affecting our lives, even as they seem to be receding. It's important not to let the spin doctors set the agenda everywhere in the culture; the Public Theater deserves our gratitude for giving this piece a place on our itinerary this spring. Let's hope some other playwrights and production companies follow this worthy example.