The National Theatre of Great Britain's production of Democracy by Michael Frayn. Directed by Michael Blakemore. Set design by Peter J. Davison. Costume design by Sue Willmington. Lighting design by Mark Henderson. Sound design by Neil Alexander. Cast: James Naughton, Richard Thomas, Robert Prosky, Michael Cumpsty, with Terry Beaver, John Dossett, Julian Gamble, John Christopher Jones, Richard Masur, Lee Wilkof.
Any author would be deservedly remembered for writing either the audacious theatrical farce Noises Off or the contemplative intellectual roundelay Copenhagen. But that one man, Michael Frayn, is responsible for both marks him as the great chameleonic playwright of our time.
An in-depth political study seems the logical next step: Lovable Noises Off-style farceurs facing down the Uncertainty Principle with the detached sentimentality of Copenhagen's trio of nuclear orbiters. At this, Frayn proves almost a natural, and the resulting play, Democracy, is by turns compelling and comedic, incisive and insightful, and triumphant and tragic. Why then does the play's Broadway production, which just opened at the Brooks Atkinson, fail to satisfy?
The same clashing of styles that so enervates the play is far more damaging applied as a production philosophy. The writing, staunchly English in language and attitude, and the subject matter - the political career of Willy Brandt, West German chancellor from 1969 to 1974 - are often at odds with the actors' performances. When Democracy made its splash in England last year, the cast - headed by Roger Allam as Brandt and Conleth Hill, seen here in Stones in His Pockets, as his traitorous colleague GŁnter Guillaume - was undoubtedly able to lend the piece the necessary continental feeling.
Frequent Frayn collaborator Michael Blakemore, who helmed the English production and this one, has apparently directed his American cast to act as American as possible. But the events in Democracy don't benefit from the off-hand delivery this group - led by James Naughton as Willy and Richard Thomas as GŁnter - provides. Instead of fighting for Europe and Germany's future, most everyone behaves as though trapped in a Friday afternoon meeting. (Peter J. Davison's oppressively governmental office set and Sue Wilmington's costume plot of suits don't help much.)
With so little urgency or authenticity in the actors' take on Frayn's dual study of Ostpolitik maneuvering and political espionage, the story is told primarily through the complex Willy-GŁnter relationship: GŁnter begins as a fly on the wall and slowly insinuates himself into Willy's most trusted circle, becoming the shadow at his side and eventually leading to the downfall of them both. A secondary plot, following Willy's party leader Herbert Wehner (Robert Prosky) and Willy's heir apparent Helmut Schmidt (John Dossett) quietly working to steal power for themselves, complements this and provides the play with a bittersweet conclusion.
But the production lacks balance. The first act's political machinations are so messily wound that it's difficult to untangle them long enough to become involved in the story. You can form general impressions of what's happening from the performers' astute emotional interpretations of events, but exactly who is playing whom and why is seldom made clear. You become thankful for every appearance of Michael Cumpsty, as GŁnter's East German contact, Arno Kretschmann: Cumpsty's role, like Blakemore's physical positioning of him, is always in the shadows at the stage's edges; you always know where he stands. It's harder to tell with everyone else.
But as GŁnter rises to power at Willy's side, the second act begins and his web of deceit starts collapsing around him. Something else happens, too: The actors begin to realize they're actually in an interesting play. As the story chronicles Willy's diminishing power in the face of encroaching scandals and the ongoing investigation into GŁnter's background, the actors become more invested in their roles, and begin making everything larger, more exciting, and, if you will, more American.
It's a vital shot in the arm for the play. Almost everyone is affected: Naughton changes from stodgy to presidential; Prosky and Dossett begin to relish their roles as illicit power brokers; and the cast's other performers, including Richard Masur as Willy's chief of staff and John Christopher Jones as the Minister of the Interior, all become livelier. Cumpsty's equally good in both acts, as is Lee Wilkof as the head of West German security. Only Thomas never quite lives up to his role; his grinning amiability never makes him believable as a "hatstand" (as he describes himself), and - even more destructively - GŁnter's affection for the quietly powerful Willy, so vital to temper his misdeeds, doesn't come through.
It's tempting to say that, owing to his iconic role on The Waltons, Thomas is just too American to do the part justice. But that's not really the case - Blakemore has simply tried too hard to find American "types" to imbue these roles with energies and personalities more easily relatable. But a cast better at finding the first act's elevated tone, while still negotiating the second act's fragile network of plot points, would have made a bigger impression. Still, the play's inherent dramatic power does shine through, if never quite brightly enough; it's nice that Democracy itself wins, even if the votes for the rest of the production are still being counted.