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A CurtainUp Review
It's typical of Gordon Davidson to choose the American premiere of a topical, politically charged drama for his final production as Artistic Director of The Center Theatre Group. Over the decades at the theatre he practically created his focus has always been on new plays of social importance. We are not meant to be distracted or diverted by theatre.
Davidson is also a clever director of emotional power and David Hare's Stuff Happens, commissioned by Britain's Royal National Theatre, needs and receives every ounce of his considerable resources. In a piece that's fascinating but not dramatic, the huge cast takes the road to the war in Iraq, beginning with the first meeting of George W. Bush's Security Council in Janurary 30, 2001, and culminating 18 months after the invasion in the sad reflections of an Iraqi exile.
Authentic quotes alternate with imagined behind-closed-doors encounters. The playwright's flair for gallows humor and supple evocative writing grace the play. Hare's emphasis is on the politically-motivated machinations that sent the United States to war with a dictator ten years past his "peak of belligerence" but he interrupts the chilling humor of his dialogue with monologues that depict the other point of view in some of his most lucid, lyric language.
The first ominous hint of the direction that's forming comes when Tony Blair (Julian Sands) phones Bush (Keith Carradine) to tell him British Special Forces located Bin Laden on the Pakistani border but were requested to pull out by U. S. Special Forces. After that, he escaped. Bush is non-committal but when he hangs up, he remarks, "Focusing on one person indicates to me that people don't understand the scope of this mission. Terror is bigger than one man."
Throughout Act I, in his single-handed battle for a diplomatic solution to the Iraq situation, Colin Powell (Tyrees Allen) emerges as the man in the white hat, fighting the hawks with hard-ons in his own administration with more passion than he can muster against Saddam Hussein. He tells Bush the use of force is a failure, a phrase which bounces off the impenetrable blank stare through which no concepts need to penetrate since Bush was born again and elected. The experienced soldier also points out war plans are advanced most enthusiastically by those who "weren't on duty when their country asked them to fight." (This brought spontaneous applause from the audience.) He predicts, with sad accuracy as it turns out, that "if you go into Iraq, you're going to be the proud owner of twenty-five million people." At the end of his eloquent and persuasive speech to the nearly speechless president, the two say good-night and Powell offers Condi Rice a ride home. First she says yes. Then she says no, she's going to stay and work. Hare's sub-text is clear: her ambivalence and ultimate choice.
"Enter the French" launches a brilliantly funny, if unnecessarily detailed, scene, in which members of the Security Council at a pre-meeting meeting in the Hotel Pierre listen to French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin (Stephen Spinella) silkily caution Powell that they will not let a disarmament resolution cloak an invasion. Powell diplomaticly but powerfully persuades them that they must hang together or hang separately. After it all falls apart, Villepin tells the world, "War is always the sanction of failure." In the devastating scene when Bush, on Rice's "trusted advice," finally admits to Powell that war is a go, Powell asks, "You've thought this through?" Bush replies, "I've taken a decision." That response reveals the nature of the man as clearly as Hare's simple scene with Condi Rice reveals her conflicted choice.
Hare could have ended his play many ways. The line, "Taken a country that's not a threat and turned it into one", sticks in the mind. But he put his curtain speech in the mouth of an Iraqi exile, an appropriate place for a naive sentiment that may be the only moment of fantasy in his play.
The play is too long and digresses to include viewpoints on the Palestine/Israeli conflict which Blair insists Bush must address before he can manage more support. Hare doesn't dramatize history so much as present it in the style of contemporary media which gives it an awful power all its own. The style is a curious blend of imagined scenes performed by the character traits of those impersonated. Even Colin Powell, who comes closest to being the hero of the piece, gives up his point of view without fight or explanation. One could conjecture that's the ingrained military chain-of-command response but a master playwright is not supposed to stop there.
The characterizations that work best take one defining trait in the style of Saturday Night Live. Prime among them is Dakin Matthews who plays Cheney as a deadpan hulking bully and almost invariably gets a laugh; John Michael Higgins as Rumsfeld, garrulous and comically opinionated who rides roughshod over everybody, including the President; the powerful Tyrees Allen as a passionate Colin Powell; John Vickery as British Foreign Policy Advisor David Manning, who purrs with a burr in his voice, as he drops "Cheney - Rummy - Wolfie" into an abyss of plummie disdain. Lorraine Toussaint whose Condi Rice costumes cloak a gorgeous figure nails Rice. Julian Sands as Tony Blair has never been better, finding the boyish idealism and toughness in the British PM. Alan Oppenheimer plays Hans Blix with steely delicacy and slyly deprecating humor.
Hare strips the principal role of George W. Bush of the folksy charm that won him two elections, displaying the skeleton of obtuse stubbornness beneath the smiling public persona. Certainly Keith Carradine has charisma to spare that he could easily have channeled into the character but he had to work with what he was given and, in trying to avoid the campiness of Saturday Night Live, he's left with a sketch that's devastating in its sparseness. Unreal though it is, it leaves a chill in the air.
Ming Cho Lee has designed a bi-level set in which tables and chairs on the lower level are pushed around to suggest the business offices of chiefs of state and powerful institutions while the upper level is a colonnade of square open doorways through which characters make Entrances with everything but "Hail To The Chief." Looming over all from side to side of the stage is a projection of The White House. It never looked more like a mausoleum.
For a review of the London production go here .
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Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
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6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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