The Spy Who Left Us Cold

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The Brits have stuck by us in Iraq, and they continue to supply a good portion of our Broadway theater. But that doesn't mean we have to thank them for everything. Take Democracy, the new Michael Frayn play about former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt that just opened on Broadway. The play won nearly unanimous critical raves in London, walked away with major awards and promised to provide Broadway with at least one prestige dramatic hit of the season. But Democracy is one British import that doesn't survive the crossing.

Frayn charts the rise and fall of Brandt — the left-leaning Chancellor who made the first major steps toward reconciliation with communist East Germany — through the eyes of Gunter Güillaume, a trusted aide who turned out to be an East German spy. "When people asked me what I was writing about," Frayn told the New York Times, "I would say, 'German politics in the 1970s,' and their eyes would glaze over." Cute, but the anecdote doesn't have the right punch line. Despite the efforts of this estimable playwright (Noises Off, Copenhagen), the audience's eyes glaze over too.

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Frayn's technique is a fluid mix of re-enactment and narration, docudrama and memory play. Most of the story is told by Güillaume, a Teutonic Sammy Glick who worked his way into Brandt's confidence — and passed along everything he saw and heard to his East German contact, who converses with him from a corner of the stage for much of the play. We witness Brandt's political successes, the infighting among his Cabinet, his knack for galvanizing crowds and his weakness for women. But it's all surprisingly dry and flatfooted as drama: too much tell and not enough show. "And on election night, who is it who brings the good news to Willy?" recounts Güillaume, as the scene shifts to a postelection party gathering. "May I be the first to offer my congratulations, Chief? They're saying 271 seats! They're saying a clear 46-seat majority." Essay question to follow.

Part of the problem may be the American cast, headed by the stolid, uncharismatic James Naughton as Brandt and by Richard Thomas, too transparently fake and obsequious as Güillaume. But Frayn hasn't done his part to turn this political drama into an involving personal one. We never understand why Brandt, who scorns Güillaume at the outset, is won over by him, and thus we don't fully register the human tragedy of his betrayal. Even that treachery seems kind of piddly. Maybe the cold war is already too distant for us to appreciate why Güillaume's spying was so damaging to West Germany, but Frayn does little to clue us in.

Democracy seems especially pallid in a year when political drama has had a bracing revival. Plays like Guantanamo: 'Honor Bound to Defend Freedom'--another British import, about the treatment of detainees at the U.S. naval base in Cuba — have built compelling drama out of real-life interviews and transcripts, while such anti-Bush works as Sam Shepard's new The God of Hell, a caustic parable about a nefarious government agent terrorizing a Wisconsin farm couple, give off the sparks of real political anger. By comparison, the polite, political-science-class dramatics of Democracy seem as outmoded as the Berlin Wall.