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Richard Thomas and James Naughton
in Democracy
(Photo © Don Perdue)
This week's noisy cabinet shuffle is a serendipitous development for Democracy, Michael Frayn's latest theater think piece. Why is this fascinating though talky drama, in which such timely concepts as "compassion" are invoked, a beneficiary of the Oval Office situation? Because Frayn's very point is that democracy is a messy concept, rarely participated in by men and women of like minds. Frayn sees democracy as a two-steps-forward, one-step-backward deal -- or maybe that's one step forward and two steps backward.

In a postscript to the published edition of the play, Frayn -- he of the mammoth intellect and, when he wants, the hilariously funny mindset -- writes that "Complexity is what the play is about: the complexity of human arrangements and of human beings themselves, and the complexities that this creates in both shaping and understanding our actions." It's a resonant explanation, since the remark could be accurately applied to almost any of Frayn's superlative works. It's undeniably true of the raucously complex Noises Off and the subtly complex Copenhagen.

Indeed, complexity of human arrangements is one of Frayn's central motivating themes. Exploring this obsession again in Democracy, he focuses on Germany's fight for restored democracy during Willy Brandt's 1969-1974 chancellorship. Frayn's pressing interest is the intrigue surrounding Günter Guillaume, an aide who rose through the ranks despite Brandt's expressed dislike of him. The self-effacing Guillaume was an East German spy whose eventual exposure led to the womanizing Brandt's downfall after four-plus years in office. Talk about complexity: Guillaume ran operations in the chancellor's Palais Schaumburg office with efficiency while taking the temperature of Brandt's activities and wavering mood. Throughout a tenure during which he benefited from incompetent security vetting, Guillaume was reporting to his East German supervisor even as he became personally attached to his West German boss.

In this way, Democracy is a deliciously sly spin on Carlo Goldoni's Servant of Two Masters. From another perspective, the drama is a variation on William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar; there are times when the cast members, in costume designer Sue Willmington's dark suits and unprepossessing ties, look to be performing a modern-dress version of the Bard's play. There's Brandt (James Naughton) as the enigmatic Caesar, silencing adulatory crowds with a motion of his hand. There are associates shooting Brandt lean and hungry looks while occasionally brandishing figurative knives behind his back.

Chief among the colleagues arguing Brandt's stewardship while simultaneously attempting to manipulate the suave politician to their various ends are coalition figures Herbert Wehner (Robert Prosky), Horst Ehmke (Richard Masur), and Helmut Schmidt (John Dossett), who eventually succeeds Brandt. Guillaume (Richard Thomas) sticks with affected humility to his own devices, which include keeping in close contact with Arno Kretschmann (Michael Cumpsty), whose mission is to assess how truly East-Germany-sympathetic the supposedly East-Germany-sympathetic Brandt is.

While sending determined minions scurrying along scattered paths as if they were electrons and photons in the atom that Copenhagen's Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg loved to analyze, Frayn examines -- by way of informed fictionalization -- Brandt and Guillaume as men who have been spies. (Brandt, born Herbert Frahm, was involved in espionage during World War II.) The playwright uses their experience at subterfuge as a metaphor for the individual's unknowability. This leads to a standout second-act scene wherein Brandt, tipped to Guillaume's duplicity, tweaks the aide while hoping to trap him.

Richard Thomas and Michael Cumpsty in Democracy
(Photo © Don Perdue)
Frayn's immense appeal as a playwright lies in the topics he chooses to address and the depth with which he addresses them. The dramatist has said that, when synthesizing esoteric material, he's often concluded that not only would he find no audiences but that he'd likely be offered no productions. In Democracy, he may have finally written a play that audiences do have trouble negotiating their way into. In the first act, there's a good deal of intricate history to establish; the air is cluttered as Brandt banters to his on-the-run ministers while Guillaume, courting Brandt and the others, aims much of his observations stage left where Kretschmann is headquartered. It's a logistical problem more than anything else, but it's daunting. However, in Act II, Brandt's complicated personality -- charismatic in public, labile and indecisive in private -- is plumbed more dramatically, and Guillaume's betrayal forces the kinds of confrontations that make the democratic process mesmerizing if not soothing.

As he has done eight times previously, Michael Blakemore captains a Frayn play with masterful confidence (and perhaps more deliberately than he helmed the London version). The director dispatches 10 indefatigable actors on Peter J. Davison's two-level set that evidently includes some details of Brandt's actual Palais Schaumburg digs. There are times when the non-stop comings-and-goings appear calculated to draw attention away from the script's dryer patches, but there are other times when the upstairs-downstairs shuttling drives home the cross purposes on which democracy feeds and maybe even thrives.

Leading the ensemble, Naughton is a calm center, though a shade too calm as the controlled Brandt. Thomas, though effective, is a hair less sycophantic than the Guillaume role calls for. It's meant as no slap to say that the other actors are unanimously skillful at portraying quirky ciphers. Their cumulative demeanor is a strong factor in Frayn's meaningful if not thoroughly realized Democracy.

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