New York City Theater
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
Since "Democracy" has received rave reviews, both in London and in its present incarnation on Broadway, this will necessarily be a minority opinion. Though playwright Michael Frayn has an uncanny skill in combining the particular with the universal, the individual portrait with an historic era, the viewer can get lost in the verbiage. Certainly the opening scenes are frantic, harried, and confusing.
But, on the plus side, this brainy piece, this play of ideas, sends one scurrying back to the history books. In fact, it is wisest to pursue a reading of the German post-war period before submitting oneself to the "Democracy" experience.
The play deals with the life and times-the rise and fall--of Willy Brandt, Germany's first post-war chancellor. It is a necessarily complicated tale. Brandt, a visionary leader, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for attempting to establish rapport with Eastern Europe. In his first four years, he signed peace treaties with Moscow, Warsaw and East Berlin.
At the same time, he was a womanizer, a heavy drinker, an indecisive leader. Ultimately, Brandt was brought down, not only by such personal difficulties, but by his relationship with his assistant Gunter Guillaume, an East German spy. Guillaume, with supposedly impeccable credentials, had wormed his way into the innermost circle. First, as a gofer performing mundane chores, he is ultimately privy to Brandt's most intimate papers. All of this he faithfully transmits back to East Berlin.
But Frayn never makes it simple, as indeed life is not simple. Brandt himself is beset by internal contradictions. And Guillame the spy grows to love the man he betrays. It is this knotty relationship, not the shenanigans of the surrounding politicians, which makes for the emotional clout. Unfortunately, the emotional pay-off comes late in the story. And "Democracy" never carries the emotional impact of Frayn's previous piece "Copenhagen." Could it be that the fate of Brandt is not as impelling as the possibility of Germany developing the atom bomb?
This Broadway production under Michael Blakemore's impeccable direction is blessed with a fine cast. James Naughton and Richard Thomas, as Brandt and Guillaume respectively, create strong portrayals. Naughton plays it cool, remote, only gradually letting Guillame see behind the mask. Thomas, playing against type (no longer the fresh-faced John Boy of TV fame) is superb. Initially a sleazy character, he grows in the role, revealing new facets to his personality. It is an all-round fine cast, with Robert Prosky and Michael Cumpsty adding color to the proceedings. And sets, costumes, lighting, sound all contribute to make this a world of shifting images and contradictory values.
But, undoubtedly, an advance history lesson is in order, if "Democracy" is to make sense.
-- Irene Backalenick
Nov. 17, 2004