The title of David Hare's bulletin-point history play about the run-up to the Iraq war—shorthand for the arrogance and condescension of George W. Bush's inner circle—comes from a press conference with then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. When asked whether there had been a plan in place to prevent the looting of Baghdad, he said: "Stuff happens! ...And it's untidy, and freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things." This is juicy stuff, and not only because it represents Rumsfeld at his smarmiest. The careless phrasing also allows one of the president's favorite and most elastic concepts—freedom—to run headlong into anarchy. But why the scruffy title Stuff Happens? Why not the far nastier, more condescending, and ultimately more revealing Freedom's Untidy?
The answer seems to be that Hare really enjoys thinking of his leading characters as glib frat boys. Accurate or not, effective satire or not, these buffoons roll around on their upholstered chairs and put public relations before war plans and have no great faith in empiricism. Their motivations are vague, their methods unscrupulous. In the program, artistic director Kurt Beattie makes some half-hearted attempt to connect Stuff Happens to Greek tragedy; in the press release, there's a reference to the play's "Shakespearian" scope. But Stuff Happens is no sweeping history play. It's a piecemeal docudrama that chooses anxiety-dispelling laughs over mounting human conflict every time.
Which isn't so awful, really, if you haven't read Plan of Attack or Cobra II and can tolerate the two-hour, 45-minute running time. R. Hamilton Wright makes a fine—if inscrutable—George W. Bush, complete with subtle Texan cadences and an openhearted enthusiasm for the Lord. Bush is rarely silly but entirely dumb in this telling, prone to awkward social moments as well as shallow thinking—though the by-now cliché notion that he's hiding clever instincts beneath the cowboy exterior gets a cursory nod.
Better yet is Charles Dumas as Colin Powell, the play's true protagonist and tortured liberal conscience. Dumas is slouchier than the military-disciplined Powell, but he retains the general's understated gravitas. He also gets the lion's share of the play's human drama. When, after being misled by Bush and his hawks about their diplomatic intentions, Powell is betrayed again in a surprise speech by French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, director Victor Pappas sets the secretary of state on the far side of the arena stage, turning away from the press conference in his own pool of tortured light. It's a horrible moment that almost edges into tragedy. Then, as though he can't help himself, Hare undercuts the mood with a wholly invented line for Powell: "I'm standing in the fucking road and all the shit's flowing one way!" Hearing respected public figures cuss is hilarious—or so the ACT audience thought last Sunday afternoon—and the atmosphere dries up immediately.
Unfortunately, there's a lot of feeble acting to detract from Wright and Dumas, including Tracy Michelle Hughes's silver-throated and not-at-all-steely Condeleeza Rice and Michael Winter's florid, ineffective Dick Cheney—by all accounts, one of the fiercest advocates for deposing Saddam Hussein. One thing I realized while watching Stuff Happens is what indelible personalities Bush's people have. I squirm whenever Rice herself shows up on political talk shows, flubbing obviously scripted lines in that reedy voice, but hearing Hughes repeat Rice's famous "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud" without her distinctive vocal quaver made me almost miss the woman. The problem, perhaps, in all of these misfires is that actors—even the few who can overcome their desire to be liked—are pliable types, silkier and smoother and far less odd than the quasi-politicians who stock Bush's cabinet.
The biggest reservation I have about Stuff Happens is the unnecessary license it takes with certain facts. Much of the play is drawn directly from the public record; most of the rest has Hare deducing the specifics of private conversations from their known outcomes. But there is a moment where Hare suggests that British forces cornered Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora and Bush, unwilling to allow the Brits credit for his capture, demanded a retreat. It's not beyond the realm of possibility, but it's a seriously dubious bombshell to drop into an otherwise good-faith version of events.