Peter Francis James as Colin Powell and Jay O. Sanders as President George W. Bush, in David Hares searing Stuff Happens, now at the Public Theater through June 25.
By Steven Snyder
The political furor surrounding Americas ongoing involvement in Iraq has reached a stalemate. Just as critics point to the administrations dishonest case for going to war in the first place and its poor, if not nonexistent, post-war plan, supporters say the past is the past, and the present is the present. Regardless of how we got here, they say, we need to stick it out.
Into this deadlock arrives David Hares Stuff Happens, a play that defiantly proclaims that there is value in discussing just how the hell we, as American citizens, let things get this far.
Four times during the play, in particularly inventive asides, Hare drives home this point. As the action grinds to halt and the lights facing the audience turn on, the production engages the audience directly as a single orator dares us to weigh in on the issue. The two sides of the audience, who up to this point have been watching the play unfold in the middle of the theater, are now looking at each other while a character tells them how they should think about the Iraq situation.
The past is suddenly interrupted with the present, and the intrusion awakens our sense of skepticism and bewilderment. These segments, presenting the perspectives of the neo-conservatives, the Europeans, the Iraqis and the Israelis and Palestinians which Hare clearly sees as the more pressing Middle East crisis look the audience squarely in the eye and ask what we think. And it is these moments that elevate Stuff Happens to something far more than a historical drama.
Given how technical much of this dialogue is, Hare, as well as director Daniel Sullivan, deserve praise for how lively and involving it all plays. The majority of the script which is on sale in the lobby of the Public Theater and has been nominated for several awards including a Drama Desk Award for outstanding play rapidly reconnects the dots, from the Bush Administrations first days in office through its unrelenting push for war after the horrors of Sept. 11.
Sure, part of the appeal of Stuff Happens are the caricatures it offers with remarkable detail Jay O. Sanders bumbling Bush, Gloria Reubens eerily effective, polished Condi, and Peter Francis James frustrated, isolated and irate Colin Powell but this is not merely an exercise in mimicry. Rather, Hare wants to recreate both the pieces and the puzzle, using real speeches, private conferences and behind-closed-doors personal meetings to show how the ripple effects of this relentless drive towards Baghdad grew into tidal waves that affected the entire globe.
The title comes from a Donald Rumsfeld speech, in which he says that in a war, stuff happens. But the play, which hangs its anger almost exclusively on real speeches, statements and quotes, is an attempt to cut to the core of what allowed this stuff to start happening in the first place. It is a real life drama allowed to play out for us with the dots connected, the spin scrutinized by facts, and the jingoism of this administration tempered by the incredulity of an audience that probably should have been paying more attention before. Seated in the Public Theater, we agreed to get off the couch, take off the iPod, turn off the cell phone and really think about whats been going on. Once that happens, the fog surrounding Iraq parts, and clarity comes quickly.