Willy, Günter, Helmut, and Horst

The Great Game of the 20th century didn't take place at a hair salon

The post-war partition of Germany might as well have been devised by a dark-hearted poet, what with its grab bag of division, dislocation, and mutable identity. Michael Frayn's play Democracy burrows into that 20th-century muck, hauling away as much symbolism as it can excavate from the real-life story of Willy Brandt (Stephen Pelinski) and Günter Guillaume (J.C. Cutler), a trusted aide who turned out to be an East German spy.

Brandt's transition to power begins when he takes the office of West German chancellor in the opening scene. (Pelinski's delivery of this truncated speech demonstrates the statesman's magnetism that he brings to the evening in whole.) We also get the sense that there's a lot of business to plow through before we're done—namely, Willy's rise, betrayal, and eventual fall. Frayn leaves out precious few details along the way, and in the early going director John Cranney's cast hits a brisk but detailed tone. That is to say that the actors somehow make fascinating such things as the inner workings of Brandt's fractious cabinet. The question, at this point, is whether the actors can keep it up without letting the work's stupendous verbiage break their backs, or at least their tongues.

It doesn't hurt that this regional premiere boasts one of the most experienced local casts in recent memory. (Sometimes experienced is used as a euphemism for old. It isn't here.) Richard Ooms chews a pipe and scowls as politico Herbert Wehner, bitching constantly about coalitions, underlining the tacit suggestion that he would be willing to destroy his own grandmother, should it become necessary. Waiting in the wings is Helmut Schmidt (Stephen D'Ambrose); D'Ambrose's bird-like features fall into the irritated scowl of a man who worries history is passing him by (not to worry, Helmut. Your time will come).

I have a top-secret 20-page dossier on your great-aunt Hilda's goiter: Political intrigue in 'Democracy'
Petronella J. Ytsma
I have a top-secret 20-page dossier on your great-aunt Hilda's goiter: Political intrigue in 'Democracy'

The central deceit in the plot would probably seem contrived if it didn't happen to be true. Loyal chief of staff Horst Ehmke (Nathaniel Fuller) spots Günter and suggests him for a government post to help Brandt stay in touch with the common folk. Which would have been fine, if by "common folk" he meant a former East German and current STASI spy whose handler Arno (Jon Andrew Hegge) practically salivates over this bonanza landing in his lap.

And so while Brandt negotiates treaties with East Germany and Russia, fights off challenges to his rule, and tries to deal with the ghosts of his country's Nazi past, the fly on the wall (and eventual personal assistant to Brandt) Günter dutifully files reports to Arno. Cutler gives us the spy as an eager nebbish, bragging to Arno about his prowess with George Costanza-like credibility, then falling under Pelinski's spell.

For all the talent assembled around him, Pelinski provides the heart of the show. He's at one moment idealistic, in the next despairing and hollow. He's suitably charismatic to make Günter's eventual man-crush believable, but he also maintains a politician's icy distance that renders Brandt's drinking and womanizing credible (his moral code is his own, and he ain't sharing it). Hovering around him onstage, always watching, is Hegge, his face bleachy, his expression mournful as we see that his side of the Great Game yielded a good deal less satisfaction than Brandt's.

It's a play where everyone is always at work, and there isn't a woman in sight. All the men do in Democracy is stand around and talk about politics—although to be fair, sometimes they sit. (Totalitarianism, ostensibly, would feature more action and a shorter running time. Hey, there are people who go in for that.) But the script is immaculately crafted and balanced, and this production so competently captures its cerebral energy and emotional ambiguity that one can scantly imagine it being done better. Democracies are famously messy things; this Democracy is quite the opposite.

 
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