It goes without saying that the people who might best benefit from seeing David Hare’s compulsively watchable “Stuff Happens,” at the Public Theater, through May 28 and perhaps longer, will very probably never go near it.
Fans of George W. Bush and believers in the American adventure in Iraq will, in all likelihood, make great efforts not to be exposed to director Daniel Sullivan’s intelligent, clean-limbed rendering of the British playwright’s mainly scrupulous recounting of the events of the last five years or so.
So the writer — by all accounts a responsible, fair-minded artist — is very clearly preaching to the choir in “Stuff Happens,” although in a far more serious, more high-minded manner than actor Tim Robbins was when he wrote “Embedded,” a play which was also produced at the Public.
For director Sullivan’s brilliantly-cast, swiftly-paced production, the ground-level Newman Theater’s auditorium, normally a gentle slope of rows of seats, leading to a conventional proscenium stage has been completely reconfigured.
Now two banks of viewers face each other across what could best be described as an open-sided, indoor tennis court, with walls at either end, suitable for projecting images conveying information or indicating the specific location of the scene being played.
In the clear space between the pair of audience segments, Sullivan’s splendid 16-actor cast comes and goes, manipulating 13 dark red chairs, useful for press conferences, committee meetings, weekends at Camp David, intimate dinners, encounters with foreign dignitaries, or whatever Hare’s rich script might require.
Apart from a small table or two, present only very briefly, that’s it, and it all adds up to a mainly flawless delivery of the coruscating, sometimes funny, sometimes ironic, often heartbreaking material at hand, getting the sad story across with clarity and solid impact.
Playwright Hare may have written himself into a bit of a corner with an interview printed in the New York Times of Sunday, March 26. In the piece, he admits to having made up a lot of the exchanges and conversations which are heard in the course of “Stuff Happens,” a title deriving from a comment Donald H. Rumsfeld is known to have made when he was informed that there had been a great deal of looting going on in Baghdad.
Of course, chats conducted at Camp David, or for that matter, the Oval Office, the West Wing and myriad other locations, are seldom if ever made part of the public record, but even taking that reality into consideration, Hare may have given the play’s enemies, of which here will probably be a considerable number, abundant ammunition to use against his work by admitting to a large quotient of what he called “speculation.”
In the interview, in prime position on the first page of the Sunday Arts & Leisure section, Hare is quoted as saying “a lot of the stuff that is now accepted as fact was speculation,” adding that “my version of events was much more controversial when I wrote it.”
He goes on to say that he “wanted to write the story of how a supposedly stupid man completely gets his way with two supposedly clever men, and wins repeatedly.”
The “supposedly stupid” man is, of course, President Bush, and the “supposedly clever” individuals are, needless to say, Tony Blair and Colin Powell.
Director Sullivan’s “starless” cast shines like the firmament on an especially clear and cloudless night.
The actors, excellent without exception, were obviously chosen, for the most part, because of the physical resemblance they bore, or were able to achieve, to the public images of the individuals they were called upon to portray.
This is particularly true of Peter Francis James’s poignant presentation of former secretary of State Colin Powell, and his successor, the tightly-controlled and disciplined Condoleeza Rice, as delivered by the striking Gloria Reuben.
Equally close to their characters in physical terms are Vice President Dick Cheney, in the actorly person of Jach Grenier, and, to almost the same extent, Donald Rumsfeld as reconceived by the splendid Jeffrey De Munn.
Byron Jennings, one of New York’s finest, and most sadly underrated actors, recently so excellent in Eugene O’Neill’s “A Touch of the Poet” in the Roundabout Theater production at Studio 54, is an eloquent and somewhat pathetic Tony Blair, despite the fact that the physical resemblance isn’t quite satisfactory.
As George Bush, the reliably fine Jay O. Sanders, roughly twice the size of the man he’s playing, sometimes drifts just a bit into the risky realm of caricature, which is probably unavoidable, considering the president’s on-the-record verbalizations, many of the most often quoted of which are present in the text of “Stuff Happens.”
In smaller roles, generally enacting individuals whose faces and mannerisms are unfamiliar, or at least not as familiar as those of the major players in the tale, the cast works wonders.
David Pittu’s Paul Wolfowitz is effectively crafted, as is Robert Sella’s arch, slippery Dominique De Villepin.
George Bartenieff is satisfactorily British as Jack Straw, but puzzlingly un-Swedish as Hans Blix, appointed by the United Nations to be the chief bloodhound in the search for WMD, a.k.a. “weapons of mass destruction.”
Brenda Wehle is fine as Laura Bush, and even better as a tiny cluster of journalists and, especially, as a powerful New Labour Party politician.
If there is a hero in the endeavor, it is Colin Powell, caught in a hornet’s nest of exceedingly questionable individuals, and, as portrayed by the unforgettable Peter Francis James, a genuinely tragic one.
Chances are James’s eloquent, intelligent, eventually powerful replication of Colin Powell is precisely the sort of performance capable of following you out into Lafayette Street and haunting you for days. What this sterling actor provides, among a good number of other things, is a sorrow trenchant enough to enrich the entire occasion.
Just about everything, in short, is right, adding up to a resonant reminder, if one were needed, of what an invaluable asset the Public Theater has, over the years, become in the life of New York City.
In a programme note, David Hare affirms that “Stuff Happens” is “surely a play, not a documentary, and driven by its themes as much as by its characters and story.”
Has Hare indulged himself with one or two facile jokes? He has — including one moment in which Bush, in response to Cheney’s request to have the floor, advises the vice president to “take your best shot.”
The laugh it gets is perhaps too easy by half, but, in a work this fine, the playwright is entitled to a touch of self-indulgence.