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The U.S. verges on war -- and you are there

June 07, 2005|James C. Taylor | Special to The Times

To go to war or not to go to war. That was the question.

Written during the aftermath of official combat in Iraq and the buildup to the 2004 presidential campaign, David Hare's "Stuff Happens" premiered last September on Britain's most prominent stage to standing-room-only crowds, international attention and enthusiastic reviews from London's critics.

Nine months later, "stuff" continues to happen in Iraq -- yet polls report that Americans are turning their attention away from our involvement in the Middle East. The big question for those awaiting the U.S. premiere of Hare's latest work has been: Is "Stuff Happens" still relevant?

The intelligence gathered on opening night Sunday proves the answer to be conclusive: yes.

Many will no doubt come to the Mark Taper Forum play expecting to see Bush-bashing on a grand scale. But thankfully, Hare's characterization of the 43rd president of the United States is unique among current portraits, fictional or otherwise. The playwright chooses not to demonize or lionize him. Rather, Hare shrewdly depicts George W. Bush as a man whose power derives simply from the stubbornness of his convictions (regardless of their origins) and the lack of similar fortitude on the part of those who oppose him.

At the National Theatre last year, the Bush role suffered from a British actor (Alex Jennings) trying to do a "Dubya" impersonation. At the Taper, Keith Carradine uses his own brand of charm rather than attempting an approximation of someone else's. Posture, ticks and vocal tendencies are not imitated. The result is a finely tuned performance that is certainly more convincing than his London predecessor was and perhaps even more convincing than the genuine article.

Interestingly, given Hare's productivity and politics, this is only his second work to be seen on the Taper stage (1997 saw Brian Cox in an excellent production of Hare's "Skylight"). No matter. "Stuff Happens" is like a crash course in Hare's many styles -- especially his long-acknowledged skill with one-on-one dialogue, as well as his recent mastery in making nonfiction come to life on stage.

Hare is helped with the latter at the Taper by a strong supporting cast that never suggests mere talking heads.

Two actors in particular resemble their real-life counterpoints so closely that one is tempted to call the Secret Service. First there's John Michael Higgins as Donald Rumsfeld. Not only does the actor (a veteran of many stage plays as well as Christopher Guest's character-based moc-docs) capture the lazy yet arrogant tone of Rumsfeld's infamous patter, he perfectly mimics even the way the secretary of Defense holds his pen.

Then there is Dick Cheney's Dakin Matthews -- I mean Dakin Matthews' Dick Cheney. Those who have seen Matthews' recent work in the epic Lincoln Center "Henry IV" or the tiny Andak Stages "Prince of L.A." know that he is one of the country's finest actors. With his confident presence -- and the ability to scowl and speak out of the side of his mouth in exactly the manner of the V.P. -- Matthews almost steals the show.

In this large cast there is only one disappointment: Julian Sands as British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Nicholas Farrell, who originated the role in London, was an inspired mix of optimism and oiliness, but he could also, like the P.M. himself, deliver a great speech. Sands wanders around the stage like a child lost at Harrods and when called on to speak, the British actor is unable to project his voice and persuade an audience, no less a nation.

Tyrees Allen plays Secretary of State Colin Powell as a righteous mouthpiece for those who oppose the war. Allen's Powell shouts down the president in a meeting and shows open disdain for the more hawkish Cabinet members, two things that America's "reluctant warrior" would likely never do. His performance is, at face value, quite engaging, but it strains the credibility of an otherwise faithful production of Hare's temperate and well-researched play.

Other performers are worthy of praise (Stephen Spinella, Alan Oppenheimer, Lorraine Toussaint), but ultimately the main credit for the success of "Stuff" must go to Gordon Davidson.

For the London staging, in the vast Olivier Theatre, Nicholas Hytner strove for panoramic spectacle; at the 750-seat Taper, director Davidson scales the stagecraft down, wisely showcasing the work as a chamber drama. With the help of noted set designer Ming Cho Lee, Davidson makes the stage an extension of the audience, which creates a setting true to the ideals of a real forum: a public meeting place for open discussion.

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