Playwright Michael Frayn will never be accused of insulting the intelligence of his audience, even if the audience may not be up to the intellectual demands he makes upon them. Certainly one of the best things about The National Theater of Great Britain’s production of "Democracy," Frayn’s latest play to cross the Atlantic, is that it doesn’t require the brain to ponder or consider the nature and effect of quantum physics on humanity, as did Frayn’s previous play "Copenhagen."
"Democracy" does, however, require that we undertake the challenge of absorbing some often impenetrable political parliamentary style discourse as well as follow the path of a governmental deception as it unfolded in Germany during the Cold War era. Even if you are not a critic, you may want to jot down some notes regarding the difference between the opinions and objectives coming from the leftist German Democratic Republic and those coming from the more leftist Federal Republic of Germany. That way you can try to figure out (most likely after you have gone home and said, huh?) why it was necessary for them to be infiltrated by ominous Communists.
Despite the presence of real life historical figures and the plethora of presumably pertinent facts, the sly but wordy exchanges between real life politicos in craftily structured scenes, and some excellent performances, "Democracy" sacrifices hot dramatic intrigue for the sake of cold rhetoric.
The play, which covers the period of 1969 to 1974 during the time when an East German Stasi spy Gunter Guillaume was successfully embedded in the office of Chancellor Willy Brandt, will probably strike most Americans as small potatoes in light of our own, and even more divisive, current political issues. "Democracy" uses the political complexities and the conflicts of a new multi-party Germany as a backdrop for a drama about human frailty and gullibility. This is scrutinized through lens of a shifty figure whose devious motives are hidden behind a mask of unassuming naivety. This element, of course, is what makes the otherwise laborious task of listening to 10 men talk in long sentences about the delicate balance in maintaining an operational democracy, remotely interesting.
There has been a lot of talk about the London cast being able to give Frayn’s text the kind of stiff-necked, autocratically solicitous resonance it needs to be fully effective. Far be it from me to suggest that our American actors aren’t up to the task. However, James Naughton gives such a stolid performance as Brandt, the progressive leader who led the newly unified nation out of the Nazi-polluted era, that Brandt appears to be no more than a half-hearted cipher. The text is ripe with references about Brandt’s notoriety as a womanizer, his being a hard drinker, and his reputation for seducing the public with his famously silent speeches. But with all this rich background, most of it inferred, Naughton simply fails to create a persuasive or charismatic character. This is a disappointing turn from the good-looking actor who was notably charismatic as Billy Flynn in "Chicago," and won a Tony for it.
One is left to wonder what Gunter Guillaume, whose job it was to keep his boss and the government office informed about public opinion, saw in Brandt, who rarely displayed anything other than a disingenuous tolerance toward his disloyal aide. Always interesting to watch, Richard Thomas has the plumier assignment as Guillaume, the conflicted mole who regularly diverts reports of meetings and copies of documents back to his Eastern bloc operative. When Guillaume’s shame and despair is exposed, it is palpably expressed through Thomas’ saddened fa‡ade.
It couldn’t have been easy for director Michael Blakemore to bring a modicum of urgency or excitement to a play mainly propelled by Brandt’s literally lofty speeches (given on the upper tier of designer Peter J. Davison’s visually arresting multi-office/multi-location setting) and Guillaume’s static exchanges with his Communist contact Arno Kretschmann (played with appropriately smug arrogance by Michael Cumpsty). Cumpsty can also be considered an accomplished veteran of the Frayn school of high-flown verbiage, having appeared with great success in "Copenhagen."
Robert Prosky makes the most of his role as the smugly agitating Bundestag party leader Herbert Wehner, whose self-serving non-allegiance brings the play its most lively and disruptive force. John Dossett gets our attention as the wily chancellor-in-the-wings Helmut Schimdt. Whatever else may or may not grab your attention, it will be the Wagnerian finale set within the government offices of the Palais Schaumburg. This is for you, if you’ve never seen the collapse of the hall of the Gibechungs at the Met.
Curiously the most insightful and telling moment of the evening doesn’t come within the confines of the play, but rather during the curtain call. Ten tall men, all similarly attired in business suits, are lined up in a row across the stage. En masse, they bow. This cookie-cutter image speaks louder than all the words we’ve heard about the solidarity, uniformity, and conformity of duplicitous political demigods whether then or here now in the USA.
Democracy, Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 West 47th Street For tickets call 212-307-4100.