In a generally positive review for The Spectator, Toby Young declared Stuff Happens dead on arrival. Just prior to describing the weirdly controversial show as "a marvelously entertaining tour de horizon" and "a work of epic sweep," the critic incongruously predicted that David Hare's detailed political history of events leading up to America's 2003 invasion of Iraq wouldn't "be revived in 10 years time, let alone 100."
For the moment anyway, I have to disagree. Because seven years after the regrettable misadventure, six years after Stuff Happens premiered in London, and only a few months after President Obama announced the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq, this history play — sometimes mischaracterized as a work of leftist anti-war agitprop — is still provocative and entertaining. The University of Memphis' thoughtful take on Hare's austere docudrama plays out like Our Town [Post-Globalization] and seems like something that might be with us for a very long time.
Hare's title is a direct quote of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a bellicose Nixon retread who used the expression to dismiss rampant looting in Baghdad. The playwright, who mixes actual dialogue from the public record with speculative takes on what might have happened behind the scenes, is hard on Rummy and all of the other neoconservative architects of America's bungled "global war on terrorism."
But this play was written before Lynndie England's index finger became as famous as Uncle Sam's when photos of sexual abuse and torture in Abu Ghraib prison were leaked to the public. The worst was still unknown, and in retrospect the play's most controversial elements — criticized as propaganda in 2004, as Bush ran for re-election, now seem like uncommonly fair play. If Hare is biased — and he certainly is — he's kept himself in check by giving his play's most moving lines to an angry journalist making a compelling — if ultimately dubious — case for humanitarian warfare. In 2010, this pointedly funny play is no longer about who was right or wrong at the time. It's only about people making decisions that have consequences.
Director Bob Hetherington has a reputation for innovation and excellence. He mounted Urinetown and revived Cyrano. His virtually unattended production of The Seafarer took top honors at the 2010 Ostrander awards. Stuff Happens may be the best thing he's done in Memphis. It's not "good political theater" or "good college theater." It's a capable director doing precise work with an uncommonly mature, all-student cast and a script that's Shakespearian in scope with the immediacy of a living newspaper. It's a must-see for political/theater junkies.
Dave Nofsinger's set is an elegantly empty space populated by a dozen identical office chairs surrounded by three white walls. Text is projected on the walls telling us when we're in the Oval Office and when the mission is "accomplished." The U of M's "Big Red" theater may not be the ideal place for Stuff Happens, a show that can only benefit from intimacy, but the huge show-swallowing space has been used to its best advantage.
In addition to Dubya and Rummy, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Tony Blair, John Negroponte, George Tenet, and even cellist Yo-Yo Ma show up to play a part in Hare's drama, and each character has been vividly recreated by members of an especially tight ensemble.
Maybe Toby Young was right, and Stuff Happens is nearing its expiration date. I think it has the potential to hang around for as long as people are interested in tragedies about hubris and the abuse of authority. Of course, this production will be gone by the end of the week. Stuff Happens, University of Memphis, Mainstage Theatre, October 14th-16th. Tickets are $10 for students, $15 for community (678-2576).