Forget "ripped from the headlines": Stuff Happens is positively mired in them. You can all but smell the ink wafting through The Public Theater's Newman Theater, and hear the newsprint crinkling beneath the feet of the actors as they trudge across the stage trying to bring life to David Hare's indistinctly realized contemporary historical drama.
The performers are charged with the unenviable task of humanizing figures some consider demonic, rationalizing events some consider unjustifiable, and making sense of what some consider senseless. Have any actors had a harder job this season? Have any played characters as pre-loaded with the audience's emotional baggage as here, with Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, and, yes, President George W. Bush himself? And have any faced a greater disparity between the gravity of the greater message they're communicating, and the way that message is presented onstage?
The answer to that last question, at least, is a resounding no.
Opinions about the Iraq War, a major centerpiece of the last three years of Bush's administration, run hot, and run to the root of what one considers the role of the United States in the realm of world politics. The issue of whether invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein was necessary or advisable can easily thrust people into bitter arguments: "It was vital, Saddam was a tyrant!" "No it wasn't, he wasn't a threat to the U.S.!" "Saddam gassed his own people!" "Bush wanted Iraq for the oil!" We've heard them all.
Stuff Happens is mercifully free of that brand of repetitive rhetoric; Hare doesn't pretend, for example, that the situation can be boiled down to something as simple as "Bush lied, people died." He wants a more thorough examination, dissection, and reconstruction of the circumstances and personalities surrounding the Iraq War, using a combination of documentary evidence (speeches, interviews, and the like) and original scenes that imagine what happened behind closed doors.
Hare, however, cannot completely avoid using broad strokes in his neo-Shakespearean-history chronicle, especially when it comes to his characters. Cheney (Zach Grenier), is a nasty Machiavellian strategist; Rice (Gloria Reuben) is a cool, calculated decision maker, a snake with a sneer behind her smile; Rumsfeld (Jeffrey De Munn) is an unhinged jerk. Colin Powell (Peter Francis James) and English Prime Minister Tony Blair (Byron Jennings) are at least presented as conscientious victims, whose principles and higher natures are violated in the rush to war, but nor do they seem entirely three-dimensional.
More impressively, Hare and actor Jay O. Sanders don't portray Bush as an inveterate moron, but instead as a sly manipulator, who might be slow on the uptake or easily misled, but is always in control. And director Daniel Sullivan, who has staged the play with a crisp, conservative sensibility, never allows Sanders or any of the other actors to get away with caricature. He demands nuance and color from them, and gets it.
He probably didn't have the power to demand it from Hare, who has worked in the two years since the play's London premiere to keep the show fresh and relevant, but hasn't found a way to justify the show as a dramatic presentation. It has more entertainment value than the evening news, yes, but not enough; it attempts to even-handedly present facts, but is ultimately both too biased and too general in terms of what it presents to function as anything appreciably informative.
Whether the buffoonish, downright Elizabethan depiction of the French (who play a vital role in United Nations diplomacy in Act II) will satisfy for the former, or whether the many (frequently unsympathetic) interpolated extractions from the public record will suffice for the latter, will depend entirely on the viewer. Shakespeare used his history plays as elaborate metaphors for the politics of his time, which allowed him (and us) to view events through lenses both more forgiving and more critical, and with greater dramatic punch. Hare, in aiming right at his targets, overshoots them.
Only in the last moments of the play does Hare score a dramatic bull's-eye, with a haunting speech delivered by a displaced Iraqi who finds in his own people the responsibility for Saddam's ascension and the United States's reaction. It's the only time Hare succeeds in driving home that it's ordinary individuals, not collectives of world leaders, who determine the true course of history. Though that idea courses through all of Stuff Happens, it otherwise never rings long or loudly enough.