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'Democracy' plumbs W. German politics, Brandt's dilemma

| Sunday, Dec. 12, 2004

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.

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