Michael Frayn's Democracy

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...

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About the Author

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.