Splitting Herrs

Michael Frayn's Democracy gets a case of the Willys about Cold War Germany

For its first 20 minutes, Democracy painstakingly documents events surrounding the 1969 election of left-leaning politician Willy Brandt to the post of chancellor of West Germany's democratic parliament. If that sentence bores you down to your lederhosen, just wait till you hear what's in the rest of this 150-minute drama.

The play by prolific British author Michael Frayn marks the year's first production at Theatre Three, where Frayn's Copenhagen was one of the company's best efforts in 2003. That script interwove long but often fascinating conversations between two scientists—one German, one Danish—about particle physics and the moral implications of creating the first atomic bomb during World War II. Democracy takes place decades later, toward the end of the Cold War inside a West German government attempting the first tenuous steps toward reunification with the Communist East. Moral and ethical dilemmas abound here, too, in a play that's no less didactic than Copenhagen but is much less fascinating as it lays out reams of exposition about German history and Ostpolitik, plus the biographies of Brandt's key cabinet members and their scramble for powerful positions in the 1970s Bundestag.

Frayn is a masterful writer, one of the great contemporary British novelists and playwrights (he wrote the backstage farce Noises Off just before taking up an obsession with Deutschland). But despite its elegant dialogue and roots in reality, Democracy, especially the nearly 90-minute first act, is a hard slog. For long stretches of jibber-jabber about treaties and trade partnerships, it feels like watching an uninterrupted feed from C-Spandau.

Eventually the play gets down to the dramatic business of personal conflict, focusing on the interaction between Brandt, played by appropriately stern-but-sexy Dallas actor John S. Davies, and the mousy Günter Guillaume, played by Matt Tomlanovich. Brandt comes across as a Clintonesque figure, smart, charismatic and impressively priapic, diddling secretaries and women journalists by the dozens, even during office hours. Adored by his nation and protected by his loyal staff, Brandt unwisely puts his trust in Guillaume, a low-level factotum who works his way up the ranks to become Brandt's personal assistant.

Guillaume also happens to be a Stasi mole reporting regularly back to an East German contact, Arno Kretschmann (Michael Corolla). He's a reluctant spy, more so the more he gets to know the dynamic Brandt, who has his suspicions about Guillaume being a traitor, but enjoys his pleasant company so much, he doesn't act on his instincts. Brandt especially appreciates Guillaume's skill at efficient scheduling. It is Guillaume who orchestrates the goings and comings of the long queues of lady visitors to Brandt's bed during cross-country train trips.

Meanwhile, back at the Palais Schaumburg, all the chancellor's men are jockeying to see who will succeed Brandt when the big man is brought down either by an extramarital bimbo eruption or a spy scandal (turns out it will be both, simultaneously, in 1974). There's the devious windbag Herbert Wehner (Mark Oristano) and pencil-pusher Reinhard Wilke (Ted Wold), creepy Hans-Dietrich Genscher (Elias Taylorson) and up-and-comer Helmut Schmidt (Michael Wiseman). Ulrich Bauhaus (David Lambert) is the ask-no-questions servant who sees everything but knows nottink, nottink.

In all, 10 middle-aged white men in nearly identical dark suits bustle about the Theatre Three stage, trying to inject urgency and enthusiasm into speeches about "three political parties, in and out of bed with each other like drunken intellectuals, 15 warring cabinet ministers in Bonn alone and 60 million separate egos, all making deals with each other and breaking them...60 million separate Germanies!" Wilkommen to policy wonk playhouse.

Act 2 opens it up a little as Frayn allows the Brandt and Guillaume characters to spend some time alone. They talk families and personal histories. Brandt admits he's depressed and full of regrets. Guillaume, married to a more experienced spy, reveals his loneliness, both to his boss and to the audience in frequent asides. Copenhagen was built on an analogy about complicated men being bundles of restless atoms waiting to explode. Democracy says that the banality of a national government going about its daily business often masks the intriguing complexities of the people within it. Democracies themselves are as delicate and complicated as human beings. Sometimes the most unexpected turns of events send them crumbling.

If the subject matter and gray characters aren't impenetrable enough, the staging of this play presents particular problems for directors and scenic designers. Frayn's script contains a 37-page endnote from the author about why the play was written, but provides almost no guidance for how the staging of it should look, saying only that the action should be set on "a complex of levels and spaces; of desks and chairs; of files and papers; also of characters, who mostly remain around the periphery of the action when not actually involved in it."

At Theatre Three, director René Moreno, always a sure hand with a difficult drama, works his actors like bulky dancers interpreting a fugue. They merge for a while, move in unison, then separate to stand solo in stark trapezoids of white light (designed by Russell Dyer) that pop up in unexpected spots up and away from the central acting arena.

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