ShareThis Page
‘Democracy’ plumbs W. German politics, Brandt’s dilemma |

‘Democracy’ plumbs W. German politics, Brandt’s dilemma

| Sunday, December 12, 2004 12:00 a.m

As staid and dry as it is intellectually accomplished, Michael Frayn’s “Democracy” probes complexities and ironies in West Germany from 1969 through ’74, the period during which Willy Brandt was chancellor.

The play is a smash hit in London, where the seasoned theatergoing audience is incomparably more attuned than most Americans to subtleties in the rebuilding and reunification of Germany over the past 59 years.

“Democracy” is playing now, too, at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where patrons accustomed to media-propelled politics and a more visceral kind of drama might watch with as much inadvertent detachment as they do admiration.

Frayn (“Noises Off”) wrote “Democracy” with the academic verbiage of, but less intense interpersonal interaction, than his “Copenhagen.”

He relies here almost wholly on the exposition of 10 men to tell the story of the charismatic Socialist Brandt (James Naughton) and how he is brought down by a mole he doesn’t much like but whom he trusts and relies upon as a barometer of the masses.

The mole is Gunter Guillaume (a bespectacled Richard Thomas), an East German Stasi spy who reports to a character named Arno Kretschmann (Michael Cumpsty), the one composite, fictional character in the play.

What makes Guillaume’s spying invisible is his sincere lionization of Brandt.

Guillaume embodies the duality developed by Frayn throughout and highlighted on the cover of the Broadway Playbill by a faceless figure; it’s like the negative of a photo — a silhouette that is light on one side and dark on the other. Symbolically, one side shadows the other.

The play is performed on two stylistically abstract tiers united by a svelte, metallic circular staircase. On the lower level, Guillaume vacillates throughout between his professional contacts on stage left and stage right.

Within himself, Brandt straddles sides. He is ironically a champion of the East who cultivates reunification and who won a Nobel Peace Prize for promoting it. But he is surrounded by a cabinet quietly divided against itself.

The cabinet stinks of self-interest, expedience and conflicting social and economic agendas.

“Under capitalism, man is oppressed by man,” Brandt observes. “Under socialism, it’s the other way round.”

But then, Brandt develops a reputation for indecision, compromise and speeches notable for long silences, as if sheer presence were his greatest talking point.

“Democracy” suggests monumental research and distillation. It’s an accomplished work but one that begs more of a familiarity with shadings of German politics and coalitions than most theatergoers on this side of the Atlantic will bring to the play.

It’s further impaired by a lack of dramatic resonance. “Democracy” is a tapestry of modulated verbiage and exposition, not fireworks. As directed with considerable precision, if little overt feeling, by Michael Blakemore, the play could hardly be enacted in a lower key.

“Democracy” is staged as an ensemble piece with one lightweight interpretation — Richard Masur’s portrayal of Brandt’s chief of staff, Horst Ehmke, who seems more like an American conventioneer who has wandered off course.

He’s balanced, though, by veteran Robert Prosky, who effortlessly pulls interest toward his Herbert Wehner, a wily former Communist who assesses the wind and which way it’s blowing.

Categories: News
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.