Michael Frayn’s “Democracy” is not without similarities to “Copenhagen,” its immediate predecessor in the playwright’s oeuvre. Both plays are intellectually challenging, verbiage-heavy works in which actions are described rather than performed; both explore subtleties of the human condition as revealed through real characters and episodes of 20th-century European history; both require casts sufficiently skilled to conjure emotional vibrancy from a dryly dense fusillade of facts and mostly dispassionate exchanges. The fundamental difference is that while “Copenhagen” made distinct gains in its transatlantic crossing, acquiring warmth and texture, the Broadway transfer of National Theater hit “Democracy” loses out on several counts.
Bracing as it always is to see the work of such an uncommonly intelligent, erudite, elegant writer as Frayn, unafraid to demand intense concentration and analytical dexterity from his audience, the much ballyhooed arrival of “Democracy” in a New York season that so far has yielded little to get excited about can only be greeted as a disappointment.
Examining the roots of German reunification during the Cold War-era government of Willy Brandt, and focusing on the relationship between the chancellor and an East German Stasi spy who worked by his side undetected through his entire term in office (1969-74), the drama inevitably will have more immediacy for a European aud than an American one.
Its tireless fascination with the minutiae of German multiparty politics and the limitless potential for destabilization within coalition governments clearly will be more contagious for British theatergoers than Gothamites, especially given the post-election political antipathy currently hanging heavy in the air.
More importantly, while the clinical world of physics, nuclear fission and the uncertainty principle fueled a stimulating complexity of issues in “Copenhagen,” the vigorous talk of “Democracy,” at the risk of oversimplifying, can be distilled down to the discovery that no matter how transparent people seem, there’s always a shadow side to contend with. That much can even be gleaned from the play’s poster — a faceless male torso, jaggedly divided into black and white sides.
The political and personal resonance is evident in Frayn’s contemplation of the frailties and irreconcilable conflicts within every democracy and every man, and no doubt the play’s seriousness, sophistication and weightiness will be embraced by a considerable slice of the theater cognoscenti. But it doesn’t seem too much to ask that 2½ hours of uninterrupted talk from 10 men in suits should yield deeper relevance.
Questions of the play’s strengths aside, it has to be noted that certain texts simply hold greater sway coming from the mouths of British actors, for whom the surface formality and faux-gentlemanly reserve of European politics — a very distant relative to the media-magnified rodeo of its American cousin — might come more naturally.
As Brandt’s chief of staff, Richard Masur strikes an especially discordant note, coming across as some kind of brash Yank business tycoon rather than a seasoned Teutonic political operator. But the insurmountable problem at the center of the New York production’s uneven cast in James Naughton as the chancellor.
The leftist leader who coaxed Germany out of the disgrace of Nazism and whose audacious Ostpolitik planted the seeds for a reunified nation that led to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, Brandt is a richly nuanced character, a peacemaker and a dreamer, prone to drinking, womanizing, jokes and bouts of depression.
His famous silent speeches seduced crowds in platz after platz with the power of small gestures. In every public appearance, a sea of faces gazed up at him in adoration, an emotion that spread to Gunter Guillaume (Richard Thomas), a public servant put onto Brandt’s staff to access the pulse of the population, who reported detailed accounts of government policy discussion and operations back to his Eastern Bloc supervisors.
In regular Frayn collaborator Michael Blakemore’s meticulously directed production, all but the most superficial contours of Brandt are communicated not by Naughton but by the other characters in his orbit. The suavely handsome actor scored a Tony as Billy Flynn in “Chicago,” and the same glossy emptiness that colors that unapologetically shallow lawyer defines Naughton’s perf here, creating a profound imbalance in the central relationship.
Much of the role is oratorical, with speeches delivered from the upper platform of Peter J. Davison’s artfully imposing two-tiered set. But Naughton has the vocal evenness of a stiff newsreader, bringing composure but zero modulation or depth, transforming the character into a bland cipher mysteriously devoid of the charisma and command people keep talking about.
As the spy in Brandt’s inner circle, Thomas fares better, though he’s by no means a direct hit. “They’ve forgotten about me. I’m the hatstand in the corner,” quips Guillaume, played by Thomas with an ingratiating obsequiousness that almost makes the government aide’s prolonged invisibility implausible.
But the steady acceleration in the character’s questioning nature as his admiration, respect and even love for Brandt grow, and his conviction in his duties for Stasi becomes more shaky, is persuasively conveyed by the actor. Eternally boyish Thomas seems perhaps the ideal American face for a mole who managed to sustain a facade of trustworthiness, loyalty, placidness and devotion, and Thomas effectively exposes Guillaume’s bitter shame and acute sense of unworthiness when his mask is rudely pulled away.
The exchanges and constant asides between Guillaume and his ever-present controller Arno Kretschmann represent the drama’s liveliest moments, underscoring the irony that Brandt was a great ally for the East. A composite character embroidered by Frayn from skimpy documentation, Kretschmann is played with smoothly manipulative authority by Michael Cumpsty, one of the trio of actors in “Copenhagen” on Broadway.
Best of the supporting cast is Robert Prosky, who creates a compelling character as trouble-stirring Bundestag party leader Herbert Wehner, a crusty survivalist utterly at ease with his own duplicity and absence of loyalties.
As Brandt’s political heir Helmut Schmidt, John Dossett is suitably oily, eager and vigilantly poised to capitalize on the chancellor’s missteps and misfortunes.
As parched as it seems in its first U.S. incarnation, Frayn’s intricate history play is driven along at a sustained pace by Blakemore, meaning it’s never dull, just dramatically staid.
The precision of the direction is echoed in Neil Alexander’s atmospheric sound design and Mark Henderson’s exacting lighting scheme, which nimbly steers attention around Davison’s set. As striking and almost as spare as the designer’s geometric arena for “Copenhagen,” the starkly stylish representation of offices in the Palais Schaumburg — which provides a final-act visual coup — doubles efficiently for a variety of locations, from Brandt’s private election campaign train to a Norwegian wood.