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You say you’re not feeling particularly Fringey? That you don’t much care for shows in which genders and genres are so apt to get gleefully bent? That your idea of experimental theater was that one-man show about Carl Linnaeus at the National Arboretum? Well, face it, Bunky: For the nonce, Fringe has D.C. firmly in its latex-gloved, Crisco-smeared fist. The only way to ensure that your theatrical horizons won’t get suddenly, brutally widened is to load up the minivan with provisions and get the hell out of Dodge. Or at least outside the Beltway, to that last outpost of all things sensible and resolutely unzany, the Olney Theatre Center.
There you’ll find the D.C. premiere of Michael Frayn’s Democracy, which is as potent an antidote to fabulist fabulousness as you’re likely to come across. Don’t believe me? The play’s subject is West German parliamentary politics of the 1970s. Yeah. Told you. Olney’s cerebral production is a bracing tonic indeed. But things that are good for you tend to taste like they’re good for you, which is probably why Democracy leaves a faintly medicinal aftertaste.
Be assured that Frayn knows his stuff, and that said stuff is astonishingly varied. Consider the sheer amount of daylight visible between the two plays for which he’s best known: In the farce Noises Off, he piled one unlikely situation atop another at breakneck speed until triggering one of the most meticulously controlled detonations in modern theater. In the more recent Copenhagen, he ruminated on the heady Heisenberg-ian uncertainty that continues to surround a historical meeting between two nuclear physicists in 1941.
With Democracy, Frayn once again keys off historical events. This time, it’s the rise and fall of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt (Andrew Long). Frayn shows us how closely Brandt’s fate was tied to that of a personal assistant named Günter Guillaume (Jeffries Thaiss), aka The Spy Who Loved—Um, Who Found His Boss Really Really Charismatic, But Totally Not in a Gay Way. The play’s version of Guillaume, an East German plant who quickly worms his way into Brandt’s inner circle, is a man whose loyalties are neatly divided, and that division drives the action.
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Frayn crams a huge amount of information into the first act, mostly about the various fractious factions of Brandt’s coalition government. He accomplishes this feat by doling out the historical and procedural detail over several scenes, which, in one sense, is neatly effective: It gives the characters room to breathe and allows them to impart information in dialogue that seems natural and often elegant. You steel yourself for a speech that seems weighed down with exposition and dusty political minutiae, but Frayn’s got too good an ear for that.
By 80 minutes into the hour-and-a-half first act, however, you’ll willingly trade Frayn’s good ear for a tinnier version. His laudable determination to avoid dense expository patches of dialogue means the characters constantly reassert who they are and what they want in a frustratingly diffuse and discursive fashion. As the scenes pile up, this oblique approach to providing historical context makes the production feel more, not less, like a history lesson. Yes, it’s vital for the audience to learn who’s who in the Bundestag, but it shouldn’t take this long to accomplish.
The 65-minute second act is considerably tighter, because that’s when the play’s rising action finally starts to rise: Guillaume is taken further inside Brandt’s confidence at the very same time those around him grow increasingly suspicious of his motives. This tense contradiction lies squarely at the heart of Democracy, and whenever director Jim Petosa lets it occupy center stage, the production is taut and involving: “Everyone [is] trying to guess what everyone else is seeing,” mutters Ehmke, Brandt’s chief of staff (Richard Pilcher), in disgust. Exactly.
As Brandt, Long conveys the charismatic blend of wisdom, melancholy, and human frailty that, you feel certain, would easily inspire fawning admiration. He remains cool and guarded throughout, even when Brandt is gripped by despair. Like Guillaume, you find yourself leaning slightly forward in your seat whenever Long speaks.
The Guillaume played by Thaiss is a crisply arch creation. Which is an odd choice, frankly, as the part would seem to call for something closer to smarminess. “He always reminds me…of meatballs cooked in fat,” Brandt says of Guillaume at one point. “Very leaden and very greasy.” But that ain’t the Guillaume onstage at Olney. Thaiss is birdlike and fussy, all perfect diction and darting eyes. It’s an outsize performance but not an unsuccessful one in the end. After all, while the script repeatedly makes the point that those around Guillaume find him tiresome, they do keep him around. And the way Thaiss carries on, sending his voice sliding up and down the scale, is inarguably fun to watch and winds up being rather ingratiating, in its way.
Women are frequently alluded to in Frayn’s script and play an important role in Brandt’s downfall, but absolutely no Frauen appear onstage. It seems deliberate, that absence, and although I can’t put my finger on what Frayn’s doing with it, it’s still another thing that makes Olney’s production of Democracy about as un-Fringey as it gets: Ten white guys in 10 gray suits, playing middle-aged German politicians. Talk about a wurst-fest.