|Photo by Craig Schwartz|
It will come as welcome news to the hard of hearing that the Mark Taper Forum’s newest production is David Hare’s Stuff Happens, the British playwright’s loud and repetitive indictment of George W. Bush and Tony Blair for their roles in planning the invasion of Iraq. It was clear on press night that the play also pleased another kind of audience. These were the theatergoers who had come to cheer because they heartily agreed with Hare’s depiction of the villainy of Bush’s gang of advisers and clapped (or hissed) at the end of nearly every blackout. (And, in this 260-minute show, there are plenty of blackouts.) You soon got the sad feeling that Hare’s slapping Bush and company into the pillory of anti-war theater is liberal America’s door prize for losing last November’s election.
Hare, who has been so incisive in plays taking on the Church of England (Racing
Demon) and Thatcherism (The Secret Rapture), to say
nothing of obliquely glimpsing the politics of sex in Skylight, reportedly
wrote Stuff Happens over four months in 2004, the year it premiered
in London. Using published quotes, transcripts and memoirs (as well as old-fashioned
imagined dialogue), the playwright dissects the two administrations for cynically
misleading their respective countries into war. His topical anger is clear, yet,
unlike Tim Robbins’ Embedded and numerous other Bush-bashing exercises,
that rage is also coolly controlled; more surprising, at times Hare’s instinct
for fairness leads him to play devil’s advocate, however briefly, by having a
few characters convincingly articulate pro-war stances. Indeed, throughout the
evening we brush against Hare’s empathy with neocon and New Laborite appeals for
the West to do something — anything — to counter totalitarian outrages.
The presentational format of Stuff Happens kicks off with an introduction of all the president’s people, beginning with Colin Powell (Tyrees Allen as one of the few sympathetic Americans) and touching various nodes of the White House food chain to include Dick Cheney (Dakin Matthews), Donald Rumsfeld (John Michael Higgins), Condoleezza Rice (Lorraine Toussaint), Paul Wolfowitz (Kip Gilman) and, finally, the president himself (Keith Carradine). Director Gordon Davidson is completely in tune with Hare’s intentions and apportions these characters with varying measures of levity and gravitas; Cheney and Rumsfeld are very much familiar cartoons: Matthews’ vice president is all taciturn spite, while Higgins’ SecDef is a sarcastic corporate executive gone bipolar — sort of a manic McNamara. Powell and Rice are far more nuanced, but it is Carradine’s Bush who becomes more enigmatic — and creepier — each time we meet him, a figure somewhat reminiscent of Philip Roth’s dark version of Charles Lindbergh in The Plot Against America.
And this is one reason that Stuff Happens doesn’t hold up as theater — rather than see this mysterious, menacing Bush become a stage character greater than his real-life persona, we are presented with a pageant of goons and clowns. Hare, piqued by America’s imperial foreign policy (and Britain’s fealty to it), passes up his chance to poeticize history in favor of preaching to the converted. Imagine how Hare’s Taper audience would react if it were watching a similar project that completely endorsed the Bush position. “Where’s the artistry?” we’d complain, but what we’d really be saying is, “Your opinion is wrong, get it out of my face.”
Furthermore, straitjacketed by the verbatim constraints of his research, Hare ceases to be a playwright and instead becomes a collator of facts and anecdotes — locating the bizarre and droll in press conferences and policy memos, but ultimately abandoning plot for a timeline. To be fair, there are many individual scenes in Hare’s play that succeed either as stand-alone moments of raucous satire or as poignant personal tragedy. The problem is that, taken as a whole, these passages don’t dance — in fact, they barely crawl as narrative because we know what’s going to happen next. And for every anguished moment of self-doubt Powell or Blair suffers, there’s a stupefyingly long account of the genesis of not one but both U.N. resolutions that Bush tried to first dodge, then bend to his advantage.
You could say that, given Hare’s material (his data) and our government’s mendacious instincts, the playwright could have been much more heavy-handed. His show, for example, has a British character aridly announce to the house, “On September 11, America changed. Yes. It got much stupider.” I suppose we should be grateful for such restraint, for Hare could have had his mouthpiece say, “America got stupid, stupid, stupid!” But that’s cold comfort.
It’s harder to say which is worse: viewing a work of art that offends all your beliefs or one that totally confirms them. There needn’t be such extremes, though. Guantánamo: Honor Bound To Defend Freedom, Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo’s attack on America’s “rendering” policy, operated on a much lower key yet was thoroughly effective. This play, which had its U.S. premiere in New York last year, examined the Kafkaesque stories of four British Muslims who, after 9/11, found themselves imprisoned as terrorist suspects at Camp X Ray in Cuba. It similarly relied upon recorded interviews and transcripts for its dialogue, yet compared to Hare’s play, Guantánamo felt like a jolt from a defibrillator, shocking audiences from the narcotizing apathy that settled in after Bush’s re-election.
This production is Gordon Davidson’s final work as the Taper’s artistic director, and his efforts with this difficult piece show an artist leaving his post in top form. His brisk pacing never allows the long show to lag, yet he wisely encourages the more serious moments to breathe. Perhaps the best tribute to Davidson’s stage sensibilities is his casting, with Amy Lieberman, of the show’s 22-member ensemble. Some of his actors bear startling physical resemblances to their real-world characters, and all imbue their performances with the hubris and bitter sense of entitlement we’ve come to expect from the authors of the Iraqi war. (Oddly enough, Francis Guinan, who’s as dead a ringer for M.P. Robin Cook as Toussaint is for Rice, doesn’t play Cook but, instead, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.)
Though he has few lines, Matthews’ Cheney often steals scenes merely by his frowning proximity to Carradine’s Bush, over whom he appears to loom ominously. As the president, Carradine, while sometimes seeming to recycle his Will Rogers impersonation from The Will Rogers Follies, subtly withdraws from the play’s early portrait of Bush as inarticulate buffoon to something deeply sinister — a distant American Caesar made virtually mute by power and ideological conviction. And, while it may be justifiably argued that Hare credits his fictionalized Powell and Blair with a little too much independence and conscience, both Allen and Julian Sands command enough stage presence to convince us that their characters really did personify the war’s faulty moral fulcrum. (Hare’s Taper draft apparently does not reference the so-called Downing Street Memo, a recently revealed 2002 document showing Blair’s complicity in snow-jobbing the British public about the pending invasion’s raison d’être.)
A political cabaret without music, Stuff Happens tries to cure Anglo-American vanity by gazing into a mirror. Hare’s Yanks are brutal but likable gangsters, while Britain’s leader swoons in and out of a Hamlet spotlight. The French are reliably clichéd — Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin (Stephen Spinella) is a latter-day Daladier with barely enough spine to bend over backward to appease Saddam. Yet it is baffling for the stage of a play about one of Iraq’s worst disasters to be virtually empty of Iraqis. It’s only at the very end that an Iraqi exile appears to lecture us aphoristically about getting the government we deserve.
It would be interesting to know how Hare’s project would have turned out had he
spun his story as a parable instead of a billboard, or focused on one or two individuals
instead of the entire Cabinet. Instead, we’re left with a feel-good affirmation
of our own beliefs that might better have been titled, Oh! What a
STUFF HAPPENS | BY DAVID HARE | At the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through July 17 | (213) 628-2772