Rummy; Condi; Powell; Cheney; Dubya himself: For Americans, these are the names that have defined the politics of this decade. For the next two weeks at the Gonda Theatre, however, they are the principal players in a more literal sense: They are the main characters, in the Program in Performing Arts’ production of David Hare’s 2004 play “Stuff Happens.” A ripped-from-the headlines, documentary-style look at the Bush administration’s path to war in Iraq, “Stuff Happens” blends verbatim quotation and pure speculation to depict one idea of how this group of highly ordinary individuals stumbled into an extraordinary geopolitical mess.

Director Derek Goldman’s production is sleek in design – the neat, stylish suits, black leather swivel chairs, nuanced lighting and inventive backdrops keep the set lively but also just boring enough to fit the play’s drearily administrative tone.

“Stuff Happens” runs a few minutes under three hours, and mostly takes place in various offices. And yet, except for a few scenes towards the end, the pacing never really sags, thanks to the energetic performances of the cast, quick scene transitions and rapid-fire dialogue.

Where this rendering of “Stuff Happens” fails, however, is in the context of its staging, some distracting production quirks and particularly David Hare’s weak source material. Firstly, the play comes about four years after it was fashionable to dramatize the Bush administration’s reckless rush to war. In fact, Hare’s original play premiered in 2004, and Michael Moore covered much of the same ground in his controversial 2004 documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11. In 2008, with Bush’s departure within sight, the revelations, exposed lies, betrayals and intrigue depicted in “Stuff Happens” seems like old news.

Director Goldman addressed the “old news” issue, saying, ” I agree with the many New York critics who felt that this play will endure in a way that most current events plays will not is because at its core it is actually about deep and timeless questions – the relationship between public actions and private motivations, the nature of leadership.”

But it doesn’t seem to help that this particular production is populated with distracting, ineffective ways of engaging the audience.

The biggest problem is the complete destruction of a fourth wall of any kind. At times, it makes sense for the actors to talk to the crowd: when reporters are providing context for events, for example. But almost constantly, actors who are supposed to be talking to someone on stage spend all their time looking at the audience. This is most unnerving and destroys any sense of realism. The most egregious examples come in the two press conference scenes, in which Bush actually stands facing the audience, answering questions asked by a crowd of reporters behind his back. An apparent effort to put the focus on Bush – a character we already know far too well – simply results in awkwardness.

Other odd distractions include the use of a jarring, stapler-like noise to cue the exit of the chorus of journalists, and the sometimes surprising failure to capitalize on moments of humor.

However, the real failure of “Stuff Happens” comes in David Hare’s original play. Hare, known for his Oscar-nominated adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours,” has written a play with little dramatic effect. The documentary style falls utterly flat onstage, as the need for the crowd of journalists to explain each scene eliminates any possible dramatic tension.

Furthermore, Hare’s characterization is often laughable. The Colin Powell of “Stuff Happens” is a highly emotional, bizarrely profane, tragic hero with a tendency to throw tantrums – not the calm, almost sedate person he seems to be in public. Condoleezza Rice, on the other hand, plays Bush’s confidante, and her every interaction with Powell is charged with inexplicable sexual tension. (In one particularly weird moment, Powell actually offers to give the apparently car-less Condi a ride home.)

The balance betweeen “the iconic and the comedic” was difficult, attests Clark Young (COL ’09), who plays George W. Bush. ” My job in the ensemble was to find a balance between those two areas to tell this tragic story, which affects the entire world more and more every day. Had we, as an ensemble, slipped into caricatures, we would have compromised the integrity of the piece and our obligation to tell it at Georgetown.”

Hare’s dialogue is laced with such gems as, “Force isn’t force unless you threaten to use it,” and, “I’ve got these treacherous French in the Security Council!” It generally wavers from merely weak to sickening throughout.

In the end, the Performing Arts production of “Stuff Happens” is considerably redeemed by the measured, impressively substantial performances of the cast. Especially outstanding is Young as Bush, who deftly avoids becoming a caricature – although he nails Dubya’s awshucks demeanor and unintended hilarity, he also vaguely terrifies us by playing Bush as the easily manipulated, highly inconsistent child that he quite possibly is.

aking a further plea for the relevancy of the show, Goldman adds, “I think the reason this play is seen right now as one of the hotter properties in the theatrical world … even though, as you say, we are (at least from an electoral perspective) in a moment of looking ahead rather than looking back, is that like any good history play, this piece helps us understand and reflect on our present moment.”

If you have seen Fahrenheit 9/11, this is no desperate need for you to see “Stuff Happens” at the Gonda Theatre. But if you can stand some bad dialogue and a few quirky production choices, “Stuff Happens” is recommended on the merits of its acting and its intriguing – if a bit late-in-coming – take on the prologue to the first great fiasco of this young century.

“Stuff Happens” will run through April 19 in the Gonda Theatre at the Davis Center for Performing Arts. Tickets cost $7 for students, $12 for faculty, seniors and alumni, and $15 for the general public.

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