Intrigue has never seemed so gray, and that may be the intent. But grayness of another sort pervades the American premiere of Michael Frayn's "Democracy," a thoughtful, intelligent, well-made play trapped here in a bland, personality-free production.
The drama, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre, was a big hit in London, but the trans-Atlantic crossing, featuring an all-Yankee cast, has, unfortunately, diluted its impact.
What's left to savor in director Michael Blakemore's curious production is the skill with which Frayn, author of "Noises Off" and "Copenhagen," has put together a political tale in which the outcome is pretty much known from the start but still keeps us in suspense.
Part historical drama, part human interest story and part spy thriller, the playwright juggles these plot strands with considerable finesse.
At the center of "Democracy" is Willy Brandt, postwar West Germany's first left-of-center chancellor and the architect for opening relations with the East - not only with the Soviet Union, but East Germany as well.
And watching Brandt's every move is his trusted assistant, the ever loyal Gunter Guillaume, who's also a spy for the East Germans. Theirs is a strange cat-and-mouse relationship, in which the cat and mouse come to genuinely like each other. They are the kind of showy roles that give two actors the chance to shine.
Roger Allam (as Brandt) and Conleth Hill (Guillaume) starred in the London production to great acclaim; in New York, Brandt is played by James Naughton and Guillaume by Richard Thomas.
Naughton, perfectly coifed to look weirdly like Bill Clinton, gives a wooden, detached performance, unable to capture what made Brandt the outsized, magnetic personality he must have been.
Thomas fares better as the smarmy, obsequious Guillaume, a lower-level party functionary suddenly given proximity to Brandt during the time Brandt was in office (1969 to 1974, when the spy scandal drove him from power).
Yet even though Guillaume is the play's most fully realized character, Thomas comes off as something of a cipher, never finding the ambiguity and the anguish in a man spying on a leader he eventually grows to admire.
Around them swirl a coterie of party and government officials, the men who do the wheeling and dealing to make sure democracy works and keeps them in power. Despite the presence of some formidable character actors (chief among them the wonderful, doughy-faced Robert Prosky as a practical party loyalist), they toil anonymously -- interchangeable, dark-suited fellows who never develop personalities of their own.
Guillaume consults with an East German operative (played by Michael Cumpsty) who sits on the side of the stage and banters with his spy. Their conversations are cleverly used to identify the other players in the drama and provide a framework for the drama that quickly moves from one event to the next.
Despite the disappointing performances, there's still Frayn's considerable play to ponder.
"Let me tell you what I've learned from bitter experience about democracy. The more of it you dare, the tighter the grip you have to keep on it," says Prosky's character in one of the evening's more telling observations.
If only the actors had dared a little more, this "Democracy" could have broken free and flown into theatrical glory.
If I told you that Michael Frayn's new play, "Democracy," was about former German Chancellor Wiliy Brandt and how, in the early 1970s his regime was brought down by an East German spy in his office, you might stop reading.
But what if I told you that "Democracy" was about, well, democracy?
Although the details are indeed based on the scandal that brought down Brandt's government, it is by no means merely a historical reconstruction.
Frayn is the author of the 2000 Tony winner "Copenhagen," which was about the role of eminent physicists in World War II, as well as the backstage farce "Noises Off."
"Democracy" lies somewhere in between. On one hand, it is about the intricate interplay of policy and chance that determines history. "Spontaneity, like democracy, needs to be kept firmly under control," one of its characters observes.
On the other, it is a study of the backstage machinations that make politics, if not farcical, at least wryly, sometimes poignantly comic.
This juggling act is what makes "Democracy" such a breathtaking play.
Very quickly the characters take on their own identities, apart from the historical particulars. We are concerned with powerful yet vulnerable men, not just figures in the news.
The structure of the play is fascinating. Sometimes the actors address us directly. Sometimes they have scenes with each other. Nevertheless, the narrative never seems disjointed; it has a powerful sense of flow and inevitability.
Michael Blakemore, who has directed Frayn's other plays, has done a brilliant job with "Democracy," starting with the casting. I was nervous about James Naughton as Brandt because often Naughton projects vanity and vacuity - but what could be more perfect for a consummate politician? Here he is elegantly suave. Richard Thomas gives his nemesis, the East German spy, a strange winsomeness and manages to make him sympathetic despite his duplicity. Michael Cumpsty has a wonderfully diabolical charm as his handler.
Robert Prosky plays an old-line politician with just the blend of craftiness and cynicism that makes such figures universal. John Dossett has understated power as Brandt's successor, Helmut Schmidt.
Peter J. Davlson's two-level set is simple but artful in its suggestion of the bureaucracies that outlast all political figures. Mark Henderson's lighting heightens the drama.
There is a rare intelligence at work in both the conception and execution of "Democracy." In a season mired in triviality, it is a bracing reminder of why we go to the theater.
Two-and-three-quarter cheers for "Democracy," opening last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, and three more, rather louder, for Michael Frayn, its rare and beautiful playwright.
The performance is a good A-minus, but the play - a true-to-life version of a modern "Julius Caesar" with a touch of "Othello" thrown in - proves an A-plus, even though its subject seems unlikely.
Frayn has saddled himself with a story about Cold War German politics around the early '70s and the rise and fall of the West German Chancellor Willy Brandt.
What, you wonder, is Brandt to us? Or, for that matter, the political scene in a divided Germany some 30 years ago?
Frayn, and his essentially collaborative director, Michael Blakemore, show us - by grabbing our attention and never releasing their grip until the final curtain.
Brandt is revealed as one of the most fascinating figures of post-war European politics - a weird but charismatic Kennedy-like figure, with a weakness for women and booze, but a clear vision for the West's future.
He was brought down partly through his womanizing, but more through his carelessness - which let him use, as his most trusted aide, Gunter Guillaume, an East German spy who informed on his boss' every move to the Stasi, the East German Intelligence Service.
The strange thing is that Gunter became genuinely attached to the man he was watching. Complicating matters, Willy, suspicious of Gunter's activities, began to spy on the spy.
Gunter, at first an obscure underling, manages, simply by behaving "like the hat-stand in the corner," to infiltrate the inner sanctums of government, finally oozing his way into becoming Willy's confidant and political manager.
Peter J. Davison's semi-abstract, two-tiered setting with its walls covered by garish-colored pigeon-holes, seems the perfect locale for the bespectacled ministerial suits that inhabit the play.
Better yet, Blakemore's staging catches perfectly the cinematic shifts of scene and action that characterize the fast flow of Frayn's almost novelistic play.
While "Democracy" is called "The National Theater of Great Britain' Production," it now has an all-American cast. It would have been better to have brought over the Brits.
The main fault is the cipherish performance of Brandt by James Naughton, a good actor - he hawks those little purple pills on TV - but lacking in charisma. His London predecessor, Roger Allam, persuaded you he really was Brandt, even in the real-life Brandt's famous "silent speeches."
When Allam silently dropped to his knees in prayer at a memorial for Holocaust victims, he rose straight up in a single movement - an athletic feat unlikely in a politician, but one enabling the actor to go straight to the mystery of Brandt's power.
Richard Thomas - fussy, flustered and awesomely infatuated with his prey, does much better as the spy Gunter - although even here the National Theater's subtler Conleth Hill had the unctuous edge.
There are certainly good performances in the New York production, notably Robert Prosky as a fatherly character assassin and Michael Cumpsty as Gunter's East German handler, who spends most of the play giving an actorly lesson in how to listen.
Yet the whole cast misses the caged, ferret-like atmosphere of European politicians that the British cast could capture at home simply by watching the capers of ministers on Parliamentary television.
Still - casting flaws put aside - "Democracy" remains a play to see and enjoy. It's theater at its finest.
You can start salivating now. After many months of serving the theatrical equivalent of half-thawed TV dinners, Broadway has finally delivered a juicy gourmet's banquet of a play.
Michael Frayn's "Democracy," which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, is one of those rare dramas that don't just dare to think big but that fully translate their high aspirations to the stage, with sharp style and thrilling clarity. For New York theatergoers who have endured the recent spate of dutiful revivals and misconceived star vehicles, watching Mr. Frayn's gripping study of the fraught glory years of Chancellor Willy Brandt of West Germany and the spy who loved him is like riding a wave after dog paddling in shallow waters.
Now the idea of a play about German parliamentary politics may not sound terribly seductive in the weary wake of the recent American presidential elections. Who at this point, you may reasonably ask, would want to sit through a detailed account of campaigning and vote tallying in a foreign country some 30 years ago?
But remember that Mr. Frayn and his long-time collaborator Michael Blakemore, this production's inspired director, are the same men who brought crowd-wowing sex appeal to nuclear physics with the Tony Award-winning "Copenhagen." Aided by a precisely coordinated ensemble of 10 actors, they work a similar magic on the arcana of governing a country made up, as the play puts it, of "11 separate democracies tied up in a federation like ferrets in a bag."
It may take you 15 minutes or so to become oriented to the rules and players on this fragmented political field. But soon enough you're likely to find yourself echoing the sentiments of a government functionary named Gunter Guillaume (Richard Thomas), caught up in the surge of tension and relief afforded by an aborted attempt to unseat Brandt (James Naughton), the play's charismatic center.
"Never mind football!" he exclaims. "Try parliamentary democracy!"
As with practically everything else in "Democracy," these words assume a multi-surfaced shimmer when you consider them in context. The bespectacled, innocuous-seeming Guillaume has, you see, two masters: the Social Democratic Party, which has just come to power in West Germany when the play begins in 1969, and East German intelligence. Guillaume is, on one level, that faithful standby of espionage potboilers - the spy who winds up falling for the very person he is spying on. But nothing about "Democracy" can be tagged with a simple label.
Guillaume, it evolves, suffers from a tendency that also afflicts his employers (on both sides), his colleagues, his countries (East and West) and, as Mr. Frayn has it, democracy itself: he is hopelessly, confoundingly divided. So, of course, is Brandt, in ways that assume the monumental proportions of classic tragedy. As befits a play that zestfully trafficks in paradox, "Democracy" turns out to be a wholehearted study of the mysteries of the divided human heart.
This production arrives in New York under the auspices of the National Theater of Great Britain, which first staged the show in London a year ago. I saw it with its British cast, an impeccable crew led by the magnificent Roger Allam as Brandt, and I was nervous when I heard that American actors would be taking over in New York.
But that was to underestimate the sorcery of Mr. Blakemore and his subtle, sharp-witted design team, which includes Peter J. Davison (sets), Neil Alexander (sound) and especially Mark Henderson (lighting). I'm delighted to report that "Democracy" does indeed still progress with the tense momentum of a closely fought soccer match. And the ensemble is as well oiled and brightly polished as the one in London.
Admittedly, the pivotal roles of Brandt and Guillaume are not as perfectly cast as they were in London. Judging by photographs, Mr. Allam and Conleth Hill, who played Guillaume, looked uncannily like their real-life counterparts. And as the womanizing, mesmerizing, fatally conflicted Brandt, Mr. Allam gave a performance that may never be equaled. His Brandt seemed to have absorbed every camera flash that had stroked his skin, and he appeared both tragically ennobled and trapped by this glittering public surface.
Mr. Naughton, a Tony winner for the musicals "City of Angels" and "Chicago," lacks this apotheosizing presence. His irony is less cosmic than worldly, and his deep, satiny radio announcer's voice automatically attaches distancing quotation marks to many of Brandt's lines. Unlike the shorter, more squat Mr. Hill, who was able to embody the characterization of Guillaume as a greasy meatball, Mr. Thomas cannot help cutting a romantic figure onstage. He waves his feelings as if they were a blight pennant.
Yet despite these deficiencies, Mr. Naughton and Mr. Thomas (and, lest we forget, their ringmaster, Mr. Blakemore) more than hold our interest in the shifting, ambivalent course of their characters' relationship, which ultimately leads to the undoing of both men. Mr. Naughton, who assumes depth as the show goes on, is flawless in embodying the fabled Brandt's wordless public gestures, which, appropriate to a play that celebrates ambiguity, are its most resonant.
And Mr. Thomas ultimately proves himself an invaluable guide to the labyrinthine world onstage. Guillaume is the narrator of "Democracy," relating his experiences not directly to the audience but to his East German controller, Arno Kretschmann (Michael Cumpsty, in superb, smarmy form), who hovers on the periphery of the action. "I'm blind, I'm deaf," Kretschmann tells Guillaume. "You're my eyes, my ears." Mr. Thomas executes this function with an irresistible intensity that captures the probing, perpetually astonished curiosity of the play itself.
For there is no feeling of clinical retrospect about "Democracy." Even though Mr. Frayn is interpolating from a mass of recorded facts, the play always seems to be surprising itself, much as the moody, changeable Brandt is always surprising his colleagues. More than any contemporary dramatist I can think of, Mr. Frayn has a commanding grasp of the overlapping patterns of history and of individual personality. But he is also a virtuoso in suggesting the fluidity of those patterns, at creating the illusion that they are assuming their forms spontaneously as you watch.
Not that "Democracy" is a mimetic slice of life. Its characters speak in a heightened, witty, metaphor-driven language that bears roughly the same relationship to politicians' gossip that Joseph L. Mankiewicz's script for the movie "All About Eve" did to theater chitchat.
Mr. Blakemore matches the playwright's tone of voice with a crisply choreographed and exuberantly, elegantly theatrical production that makes splendid use of Mr. Davison's appropriately two-tiered set. (There is one luscious coup de theatre that takes the characters from ecstatic election night revelry to a hung-over morning after.)
In practical terms, Mr. Blakemore's greatest achievement may be in sustaining clarity while conveying the prism of points of view described by one of Brandt's aides: "Everyone looking at everyone else. Everyone seeing something different. Everyone trying to guess what everyone else is seeing."
Every member of the supporting cast fulfills his duties with zeal and discipline, from Julian Gamble, as Brandt's damningly observant bodyguard, to Robert Prosky, as a wily, devoutly Christian politician and former Communist. It is clear that none of these characters is to be trusted. Each, in his own way, is duplicitous.
But it is Mr. Frayn's point that everyone, even the most inflexible- seeming among us, is a squirming knot of contradictions. Which is exactly what makes people so worthy of study for this playwright. Brandt's response when he hears that Guillaume may be an enemy agent might be the voice of Mr. Frayn: "The merest possibility that Guillaume is not what he seems makes him infinitely more tolerable."
The miracle of "Democracy" is that it traces this idea of multiplicity on so many equally satisfying levels: within Brandt, who speaks often of the different identities he has assumed throughout his life and agonizes over roads not taken; within every man who works for him; within the mongrel divided nation that was Germany in the early 1970's.
And while you may well draw specific parallels to contemporary figures and events (Bill Clinton as Brandt, anyone?), it's this play's infinite open-endedness that makes it such a treasure. With "Copenhagen" and "Democracy," Mr. Frayn has singlehandedly rejuvenated the biographical drama by making its boundaries porous, so that against the odds it feels as universal as it does particular.
"I am large," says Brandt, quoting Walt Whitman. "I contain multitudes." So, improbably but gloriously, does "Democracy."
The nerve of Michael Frayn, really. Four years ago, the British playwright had the temerity to ask Broadway audiences to invest precious leisure hours watching two nuclear scientists muse about advanced physics and Germany's effort to build a bomb.
Now he is back with 10 men talking about West German parliamentary politics in the '70s. And much like "Copenhagen," the drama about physics that became an unlikely hit and won the 2000 Tony Award, the new one is a rich, gripping entertainment about much more than its daunting plot synopsis.
"Democracy," which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, is more verbose and not quite as consistently riveting as the earlier work. But little matter. The fascinating play, about Willy Brandt's brief but groundbreaking era as chancellor of West Germany, goes beyond the layers of sectarian Cold War machinations to explore the intimate and global effects of divided loyalties on individuals and nations.
At the center is the spy who loves him, an East German named Guenter Guillaume, who is at least as surprised as his adversaries to find himself Brandt's trusted assistant. Richard Thomas creates yet another of his complex, self-lacerating characters, a minor functionary who hides massive emotional arias as his admiration for his prey outgrows his assignment.
Michael Blakemore, Frayn's invaluable, longtime collaborator, has recast his National Theatre production with American actors. Much like the current revival of "Twelve Angry Men," the all-male ensemble has the great faces and shaded depths of experience.
We wish James Naughton didn't make us miss Roger Allam, whose big bow-wow head and massive charisma suggested the Brandt who seduced a nation. Naughton, the Tony- winning musical star of "Chicago" and "City of Angels," is a smoothie with a mellifluous baritone we have heard once too often selling gastrointestinal medicine on TV.
Brandt, according to Frayn and history, was a splendid but conflicted idealist - the first left-of-center West German chancellor in 40 years. Elected to run half of a fractured and battered postwar Germany, he made treaties with Moscow and Warsaw and, most significantly, with East Germany.
Frayn, who claims to have been "scrupulously faithful to the facts" in this work of fiction, presents Brandt as a moody man who drank, womanized and did not like confrontation. The last trait initially served him well as a peacemaker but, as the economy turned bad and politicians circled, it immobilized him.
Naughton is commanding as the romantic Brandt on the rise, but he gets small instead of tragic in defeat. Still, it is revelatory to hear Brandt's own words in speeches - compassionate intelligence that, ironically, made East Germany regret that its own espionage brought him down.
The supporting cast is splendid, articulating the petty and world-shaking divisions within a government with the conversational quality of truth. Robert Prosky is delicious as the duplicitous old cynic, whose philosophy of democracy requires a tight grip. Michael Cumpsty is aptly slippery as Gunter's controller, who mostly sits on the side, receiving information and dispensing commentary about there being "not one Germany, but 60 million Germanys."
Peter J. Davison's set for the leaders of the country is a modest double-decker office with neatly color-coded files and the look of a nation still rebuilding from rubble. We are often asked to look up to the steep second floor, just as admirers looked up at Brandt in admiration. We are also looking up to Frayn.
I doubt that many audience members at Sunday's preview performance of Democracy (* * * ½ out of four) were experts on political affairs in Cold War Germany. Yet as characters lifted from that era addressed them from the stage, their laughs and murmurs had the distinct ring of recognition.
Mind you, the primary subject of Michael Frayn's superb new play - a popular, gifted, left-leaning German politician whose position is threatened by rumors of extramarital canoodling -may have reminded some of a recent American leader. And the lines uttered by his colleagues could sound uncannily like some rhetoric from our recent presidential campaign.
"What is happening to this government?" one lamented. "We casually launch into wild schemes. ... We take on new commitments without any idea how they're going to be funded."
Democracy, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre, first premiered at the U.K.'s National Theatre, where audiences found it similarly accessible and entertaining. That may owe something to history's tendency to repeat itself, but it's also a tribute to Frayn's brisk eloquence and Michael Blakemore's potent direction of a first-rate cast.
In the Broadway production, for which Blakemore enlisted a new company of American actors, James Naughton is robustly unsentimental as the flawed hero, Willy Brandt. As chancellor of West Germany, Brandt championed reunification with the East long before the Berlin Wall came down. But if the public was drawn to his humanist ideals and populist charm, other politicians - some, apparently, in his own party - were wary or envious of Brandt.
Democracy focuses on Brandt's relationship with his East German assistant, Gunter Guillaume, who spied on his boss. The play's central irony is that Guillaume harbors more genuine affection and admiration for Brandt than the men who claim to be the chancellor's chief supporters. As the reluctant traitor, Richard Thomas reveals how Guillaume's own ambition and eagerness contributed to his and Brandt's undoing.
Michael Cumpsty, Robert Prosky and others contribute the intelligent, vigorous performances that the script demands. Like Copenhagen, Frayn's last Broadway outing, the play doesn't patronize audiences; if you feel that passionate exchanges about big ideas are best reserved for debating halls, this isn't your ticket.
But you needn't be a policy wonk to appreciate Democracy- just someone who realizes that history can be stranger than fiction, and at least as compelling.
Michael Frayn's "Democracy" is not without similarities to "Copenhagen," its immediate predecessor in the playwright's oeuvre. Both plays are intellectually challenging, verbiage-heavy works in which actions are described rather than performed; both explore subtleties of the human condition as revealed through real characters and episodes of 20th-century European history; both require casts sufficiently skilled to conjure emotional vibrancy from a dryly dense fusillade of facts and mostly dispassionate exchanges. The fundamental difference is that while "Copenhagen" made distinct gains in its transatlantic crossing, acquiring warmth and texture, the Broadway transfer of National Theater hit "Democracy" loses out on several counts.
Bracing as it always is to see the work of such an uncommonly intelligent, erudite, elegant writer as Frayn, unafraid to demand intense concentration and analytical dexterity from his audience, the much ballyhooed arrival of "Democracy" in a New York season that so far has yielded little to get excited about can only be greeted as a disappointment.
Examining the roots of German reunification during the Cold War-era government of Willy Brandt, and focusing on the relationship between the chancellor and an East German Stasi spy who worked by his side undetected through his entire term in office (1969-74), the drama inevitably will have more immediacy for a European aud than an American one.
Its tireless fascination with the minutiae of German multiparty politics and the limitless potential for destabilization within coalition governments clearly will be more contagious for British theatergoers than Gothamites, especially given the post-election political antipathy currently hanging heavy in the air.
More importantly, while the clinical world of physics, nuclear fission and the uncertainty principle fueled a stimulating complexity of issues in "Copenhagen," the vigorous talk of "Democracy," at the risk of oversimplifying, can be distilled down to the discovery that no matter how transparent people seem, there's always a shadow side to contend with. That much can even be gleaned from the play's poster -- a faceless male torso, jaggedly divided into black and white sides.
The political and personal resonance is evident in Frayn's contemplation of the frailties and irreconcilable conflicts within every democracy and every man, and no doubt the play's seriousness, sophistication and weightiness will be embraced by a considerable slice of the theater cognoscenti. But it doesn't seem too much to ask that 2½ hours of uninterrupted talk from 10 men in suits should yield deeper relevance.
Questions of the play's strengths aside, it has to be noted that certain texts simply hold greater sway coming from the mouths of British actors, for whom the surface formality and faux-gentlemanly reserve of European politics -- a very distant relative to the media-magnified rodeo of its American cousin -- might come more naturally.
As Brandt's chief of staff, Richard Masur strikes an especially discordant note, coming across as some kind of brash Yank business tycoon rather than a seasoned Teutonic political operator. But the insurmountable problem at the center of the New York production's uneven cast in James Naughton as the chancellor.
The leftist leader who coaxed Germany out of the disgrace of Nazism and whose audacious Ostpolitik planted the seeds for a reunified nation that led to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, Brandt is a richly nuanced character, a peacemaker and a dreamer, prone to drinking, womanizing, jokes and bouts of depression.
His famous silent speeches seduced crowds in platz after platz with the power of small gestures. In every public appearance, a sea of faces gazed up at him in adoration, an emotion that spread to Gunter Guillaume (Richard Thomas), a public servant put onto Brandt's staff to access the pulse of the population, who reported detailed accounts of government policy discussion and operations back to his Eastern Bloc supervisors.
In regular Frayn collaborator Michael Blakemore's meticulously directed production, all but the most superficial contours of Brandt are communicated not by Naughton but by the other characters in his orbit. The suavely handsome actor scored a Tony as Billy Flynn in "Chicago," and the same glossy emptiness that colors that unapologetically shallow lawyer defines Naughton's perf here, creating a profound imbalance in the central relationship.
Much of the role is oratorical, with speeches delivered from the upper platform of Peter J. Davison's artfully imposing two-tiered set. But Naughton has the vocal evenness of a stiff newsreader, bringing composure but zero modulation or depth, transforming the character into a bland cipher mysteriously devoid of the charisma and command people keep talking about.
As the spy in Brandt's inner circle, Thomas fares better, though he's by no means a direct hit. "They've forgotten about me. I'm the hatstand in the corner," quips Guillaume, played by Thomas with an ingratiating obsequiousness that almost makes the government aide's prolonged invisibility implausible.
But the steady acceleration in the character's questioning nature as his admiration, respect and even love for Brandt grow, and his conviction in his duties for Stasi becomes more shaky, is persuasively conveyed by the actor. Eternally boyish Thomas seems perhaps the ideal American face for a mole who managed to sustain a facade of trustworthiness, loyalty, placidness and devotion, and Thomas effectively exposes Guillaume's bitter shame and acute sense of unworthiness when his mask is rudely pulled away.
The exchanges and constant asides between Guillaume and his ever-present controller Arno Kretschmann represent the drama's liveliest moments, underscoring the irony that Brandt was a great ally for the East. A composite character embroidered by Frayn from skimpy documentation, Kretschmann is played with smoothly manipulative authority by Michael Cumpsty, one of the trio of actors in "Copenhagen" on Broadway.
Best of the supporting cast is Robert Prosky, who creates a compelling character as trouble-stirring Bundestag party leader Herbert Wehner, a crusty survivalist utterly at ease with his own duplicity and absence of loyalties.
As Brandt's political heir Helmut Schmidt, John Dossett is suitably oily, eager and vigilantly poised to capitalize on the chancellor's missteps and misfortunes.
As parched as it seems in its first U.S. incarnation, Frayn's intricate history play is driven along at a sustained pace by Blakemore, meaning it's never dull, just dramatically staid.
The precision of the direction is echoed in Neil Alexander's atmospheric sound design and Mark Henderson's exacting lighting scheme, which nimbly steers attention around Davison's set. As striking and almost as spare as the designer's geometric arena for "Copenhagen," the starkly stylish representation of offices in the Palais Schaumburg -- which provides a final-act visual coup -- doubles efficiently for a variety of locations, from Brandt's private election campaign train to a Norwegian wood.