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It tickles and it disturbs. 'Stuff Happens' probes the personalities behind the rush to invade Iraq.
- Rob Kendt, Special to The Chronicle
Tuesday, June 7, 2005

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Stuff Happens: By David Hare, at the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles. Through July17. Tickets: $34-$52. (213) 628-2772, www.taperahmanson.com.

"He's tricky, isn't he?"

The line is delivered, with acid-tipped archness, by a member of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Cabinet, referring to President Bush. But it could just as well refer to English playwright David Hare, whose play "Stuff Happens" had its American premiere this week at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum, direct from a premiere at London's National Theatre last fall.

Hare pulls off a remarkable dramaturgical high-wire act here. Reimmersing audiences in the machinations that led up to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, Hare conjures, if not suspense, then a sense of conflict and complication that's all the more impressive given the play's intrinsic anti- war slant, and that of the Taper's liberal-leaning audience.

After all, we've all been here before and made up our minds, haven't we? Do we really need, as one of the play's pro-war voices (a fiery Francis Guinan) dismissively labels it, another "relentless archaic discussion" of the war's backstory? Well, for starters, it's not exactly ancient history. And Hare's true subject -- America's role as the world's single, unaccountable superpower -- is hardly a settled matter. Indeed, it is arguably the vital question of the age. It's safe to say there are few playwrights working today with the ambition and chops to offer its full dimensions, and many of its human wrinkles, such stirring dramatic shape.

Stirring enough, in fact, to overcome the vacuum at the center of director Gordon Davidson's otherwise smooth, authoritative production: namely, that purportedly "tricky" figure himself, the faux-folksy frat-boy Fauntleroy Dubya. As played by the estimable Keith Carradine, the 43rd president comes off oddly cold and charm-free, even when relaxing on his ranch with a nervous, needy Blair (Julian Sands) or hearing out a testy Secretary of State Colin Powell (Tyrees Allen) after dinner.

Admittedly, Hare has written a sort of iceberg role, in which Bush holds back far more than he articulates. Carradine gives us the arctic chill without any suggestion of hidden depths. However true this portrait may be to the real Bush -- he's callow and uninformed, certainly, but is he really this dull? - - it leaves a huge blank onstage. It also seems a major missed opportunity, as Carradine is no stranger to clay-footed cowboy roles in which his effortless all-American appeal has been used ambiguously or skeptically (as in Robert Altman's "Nashville" or Alan Rudolph's "The Moderns").

Thankfully, his advisers, allies and adversaries get the best material, and Davidson's cast is mostly up to it. Allen taps Powell's righteous anger as he argues in vain for more robust, not to mention honest, diplomacy. In a tragic touch that is pure but welcome dramatic license, Hare's Powell sincerely believes his job is to avert rather than advance war.

If Powell's conscientious objections bounce off his reason-resistant commander in chief, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (John Michael Higgins) engages the debate head-on, particularly in a stunning later speech in which he argues that so-called "Old Europe" is more interested in curbing American power than in fighting terrorism. It doesn't hurt that Higgins gives the show's signature performance, luxuriating in Rumsfeld's unapologetic arrogance without stooping to caricature. (The play's title comes from Rumsfeld's press- conference shrug about the post-invasion looting of Baghdad.)

Condoleezza Rice (Lorraine Toussaint) and Dick Cheney (Dakin Matthews) don't get such stump speeches, but their presence at the table is felt: Rice as a reservoir of alert calm, an unflappable factotum, and Cheney as a dyspeptic crank with a kind of bitter gravity.

Hare's eager, idealistic Blair doesn't make the impact here he most probably did for domestic British audiences last year. Nor does the suave, blond Sands, hoarse and battling vocal fatigue on opening night. Sands pulls off some priceless moments of infectious passion, like when he sits at the stage's edge, dangling his legs like a schoolboy and unburdening himself to his buddy George about the moral case for intervention, or when he sputters his frustration with the inspections process.

"I'm not asking Saddam to be clever," he fumes, holding up a binder of the Iraqi document dump meant either to assuage or to confuse U.N. inspectors. "I'm just asking him to have some elementary cunning. Some vestigial instinct for survival. At least have that! Every politician has that!" In the pause that follows comes a fresh laugh of recognition at the prime minister's own narrowly preserved power.

Elsewhere, Sands quivers and equivocates defensively in a way that seems decidedly un-Blair-like, let alone unstatesmanlike. If anything, Blair has proved more sternly resolute in his convictions than his insouciant American counterpart; Blair's moral fever seems to rise the more cold water is splashed on it. Playing him as an apologetic, stammering stooge is too easy.

It is also atypical of Hare's play, which elsewhere so brilliantly captures the convictions and contradictions of political players.

Time and again Hare overturns our expectations, cutting off applause lines with forceful on-the-other-hand arguments. When Cheney pipes up to slam Blair's crusading vision of a humanitarian war, calling him a "preacher sitting on top of the tank," and instead asserts the overriding casus belli as American security, we're forced to sort out which view is more dangerous.

When the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin (Stephen Spinella), wittily articulates worldly-wise Europe's weariness with the upstart United States, we can't help but feel his saturnine condescension to Powell, and his own Gallic variety of political calculation.

Perhaps Hare's greatest achievement is to take all this deadly seriously, to admit all these points of view, without sacrificing either the play's barreling dramatic momentum or its often wickedly pointed humor. It's almost enough to make you wish governments put dramatists on the payroll. For what Hare has done with "Stuff Happens" is to lay bare this momentous political event with more circumspection and moral acuity than do most of the talking heads on either side of the debate.

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