If you could set a play inside George Stephanopoulos’s mind, and send in a German John Le Carre to do a little reupholstering, you might end up with a script like Michael Frayn’s Democracy, one of the most highly praised plays to hit Broadway this season. A provocative and witty account of the spy scandal that felled the government of West German chancellor Willy Brandt in the 1970s, Democracy scored a slew of British awards when it opened in London in 2003, and American theater mavens waited with bated breath to see if it would repeat the stateside success of Frayn’s scientific puzzler Copenhagen, which won the Tony for best play in 2000.

Certainly the U.S. production of Democracy-starring a perky Richard Thomas, onetime star of The Waltons, as the East German spy-opened at the right time to make maximum impact: just after the presidential election, with the campaign’s themes and buzzwords still serving as lightning rods for emotion. In this climate, many of the remarks of Frayn’s policy-wonk characters resonated with fresh meaning: a speech about the fiscal irresponsibility of Brandt’s government (“Berliners! Not one of them who knows the value of money!”) provoked a grim laugh from one preview audience, doubtless dominated by Democrats.

Of course, the politics of 1960s and 1970s West Germany do not exactly mirror the politics of the United States or England today, so Frayn’s script has to slog through a certain amount of exposition to explain the complexities of Brandt’s left-leaning coalition government. This gives the beginning of Democracy a certain clunkiness that Copenhagen lacked, but it pays off as the play develops its vision of an alliance riven by resentment, snobbism, and suspicion. While East German spy Günter Guillaume worms his way into the sympathies of Brandt, the stodgy members of Brandt’s Social Democratic Party scheme about strategy and the distribution of political fiefdoms. “Let me tell you what I’ve learnt from bitter experience about democracy,” proclaims party stalwart Herbert Wehner (a splendidly truculent, white-haired Robert Prosky). “The more of it you dare, the tighter the grip you have to keep on it.” While the functionaries tighten their grip on democracy, the spy slips through their fingers.

The characters’ feuds and insularities are deftly thrown into relief by director Michael Blakemore (who mounted Democracy in the U.K. and has recreated that production with an American cast). In early scenes, for example, Thomas’s Guillaume lingers shyly around the boozing Social Democrats, who pointedly fail to offer him a drink, because he is not part of their elite circle. In a later scene, he wordlessly compels the server to pour him a glass, the silent interaction underscoring just how much power this mousy East Berliner has managed to accumulate.

The nifty scenic design by Peter J. Davison also accentuates some of the play’s crucial motifs. Shelves of color-coded files (oh, those efficient Germans!) line the walls of the set’s lower level, while a spiral staircase corkscrews up to another level, which represents Brandt’s inner sanctum. The two-tier arrangement is a physical reminder of the rifts dividing these politicians-of the blinders that keep them from seeing the whole picture. Even Mark Henderson’s lighting suits the themes: the way the set’s upper story casts shadow on the lower hints at candor and duplicity, the revealed and the hidden.

But if Democracy speaks of collective truths, it is most compelling as a portrait of one individual: the charismatic Brandt, played with brooding charm by James Naughton. A tragically flawed, Clinton-like figure, Brandt is a political genius who’s a flagrant womanizer, a victim of debilitating depressions who’s blessed with a delightfully dry sense of humor. When Guillaume falls under Brandt’s spell, it’s not really a surprise-we know spies can bond with the milieu they’ve infiltrated-but it’s hard not to sympathize. If politicians were all this attractive, voting would be a waltz.

What’s most interesting about Guillaume’s agony of contradictory allegiances, as his arrest approaches, is the metaphysical spin Frayn gives them. The conflicted impulses within a single person, the play suggests, resemble the conflicts within a democracy. “Inside each of us, so many more people still, all struggling to be heard,” Brandt muses. “For a moment one voice rises above the others, and everyone picks up the tune. And then the cacophony resumes.” Since it comes from the pen of a brainy writer like Frayn, it’s not surprising that this line reverberates with philosophical implications: it suggests that the capacity to entertain opposing points of view, to believe and to doubt at the same time, is as promising and as perilous as democracy itself. It may be wrenching to see things from several perspectives, but (to borrow from Winston Churchill’s famous aphorism) it is the worst possible state of mind except for all the others. 

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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Published in the 2005-01-28 issue: View Contents
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