By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 27, 2008
Never in a million years would you mistake the deftly intuitive Washington actor Rick Foucheux for George W. Bush. Physically, they're no more a matched pair than a chow chow and a pit bull. Yet something inthe way that Foucheux fixes his gaze and carries his body -- evoking that almost comical sense of manly resolve the president attempts to project -- captures Bush uncannily in David Hare's splendid "Stuff Happens."
Facile political caricature is by no means a goal of this sprawling and painstaking (and partly speculative) account of the White House's global gamesmanship in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Hare manipulates a passel of real figures -- from then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair to U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix -- to advance his informed thesis on how Iraq went down. Which is to say, his notion of how the Bush administration, obsessed with Saddam Hussein, trampled international law and relations in a stampede to Baghdad.
Just as Americans' feelings about Iraq seem rubbed to rawness, our tolerance for stories that analyze our involvement might be suffering from terminal fatigue. It's a shame, then, that only now is a professional production of "Stuff Happens" being mounted in Washington, in Jeremy Skidmore's excellent version at Olney Theatre Center. The play had its debut in London four years ago, and made its way to New York two years later. Good for Olney's artistic director, Jim Petosa, for stepping up. (This company has one serious case of split personality: it's running concurrently a revival of -- dear me -- "The Mousetrap.")
Still, although the piece remains an absorbing peek into the sober conference rooms of American power, it must be acknowledged that time, the calcification of public opinion and a preoccupation with other political matters -- such as choosing the next president -- sap it of some immediacy. Several major characters (Blair, Blix, Donald Rumsfeld) have long since left center stage, and others are in waning phases of their primacy.
That is by no means to say that "Stuff Happens" is not a valuable addition to any political conversation. You can go to revel in Hare's savvy prosecutorial style, his intelligent reconstruction of events. And whether or not the British dramatist's Eurocentric perspective always corresponds to your views, giving yourself over to the terrifically drilled cast will provide a rewarding primer on how actors can play polarizing people without resorting to their own burdensome commentary.
It's fun, for example, watching Leo Erickson make of Dick Cheney a quiet, confident gray eminence, so at peace with his aggressive instincts that belligerence comes across as common sense. Or Daniel Lyons, embodying Blix as genial and owlish and unflappable, even in the face of a White House campaign to belittle his role. Or charismatic Amir Arison -- hey, D.C. theater: Offer this guy more work! -- doing the cultivated Gallic thing as Dominique de Villepin, dapper mouthpiece of French diplomacy.
And of course, there is always Foucheux's keenly observed Bush, portrayed as preternaturally affable, even in the act of stabbing in the back an ally whom Hare paints as hopelessly gullible, in the courtly, high-minded Blair of Stephen F. Schmidt.
The three-hour production's most complex jobs fall to the actors playing the point people on global affairs in Bush's first term: Deidra LaWan Starnes as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Frederick L. Strother Jr., essaying perhaps the evening's most sympathetic character, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. The undercurrents of their complicated rivalry are crisply evoked: Starnes's loyalist Rice is a study in tactical inscrutability, while Strother's conflicted Powell -- caught between the White House's bellicose moves and his own better judgment -- ably reflects the escalating torment in a disconsolate bearing.
Most of the events of "Stuff Happens" take place in Washington, New York and London between Sept. 11, 2001, and the invasion of Iraq less than two years later. Hare has said he researched the play exhaustively and based much of it on interviews and the public record. The private conversations are often out of his own imagination, however, and, as he told me in an interview two years ago, no one had challenged anything he'd dramatized. (That included an assertion in the play that British special forces at one time cornered Osama bin Laden, but that the Americans inexplicably pressured the British to back off.)
Skidmore places the action on the floor of Olney's small black-box space, with audience members seated, high-school-gym style, on each side. In endless variety, the 13 actors meticulously arrange and rearrange an array of white hard-backed chairs, to represent chambers, hallways, meeting rooms and private offices in which the plans for war were hatched, debated, dissected and denounced. (Along with the depiction of Western officials, Hare includes cameos by average people of various stripes and nationalities, offering their perspectives on the hostilities taking shape.)
The evening moves inexorably to the climactic moment when Powell goes before the U.N. Security Council to lay out evidence that the Iraqi dictator is harboring all those weapons of mass destruction. We've all learned how reliable that turned out to be.
But because of the cynicism so many people feel as a result of what we now know about the emptiness of the charges, the dramatic irony in a reenactment might not offer the desired emotional wallop. Reality packs a far more powerful punch. At this stage, a play such as "Stuff Happens" might be better appreciated for its craftsmanship than for its rhetoric.
Stuff Happens, by David Hare. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Set, James Kronzer; lighting, Dan Covey, costumes, Debra Kim Sivigny; sound Jarett C. Pisani; dialects, Jennifer Mendenhall. With Barry Abrams, Jeff Allin, Carlos Bustamante, Meghan Grady, Daniel Ladmirault, Naomi Jacobson. About three hours. Through July 20 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit http://www.olneytheatre.org.