PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Democracy; A Brit Hit Yanked into Shape

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Democracy; A Brit Hit Yanked into Shape
Two Englishmen named Michael—playwright Frayn and director Blakemore—not only transferred their London hit to the Brooks Atkinson Nov. 18, they Americanized their Democracy along the way, recooking it with stateside substitutes for the original British cast.
From Top: Michael Frayn; Michael Blakemore; Simon Jones; Liz Callaway; Celia Watson; John Dossett and Michelle Pawk; James Naughton; Lee Wilkof; John Christopher Jones; Michael Cumpsty; Richard Thomas and Richard Masur
From Top: Michael Frayn; Michael Blakemore; Simon Jones; Liz Callaway; Celia Watson; John Dossett and Michelle Pawk; James Naughton; Lee Wilkof; John Christopher Jones; Michael Cumpsty; Richard Thomas and Richard Masur Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The ten conspiratorial men on stage functioned much like the Roundabout's Twelve Angry Men: as one—"Ensemble at Work," the sign could say—so, consequently, the opening-night party at Tavern on the Green democratically gave it up for these guys, allowing them their place in the sun (or at least the firefly lighting that passes at night for sun at Tavern). Accessory celebs were on the skimpy side, held to pals and, in one case, wife of the cast: Kathleen Turner, Simon Jones, Cicely Tyson, Douglas Sills, Liz Callaway, John Benjamin Hickey, Elizabeth Ashley, Celia Watson and Michele Pawk (the wife of cast member John Dossett).

Of course, it helps the casting case that Democracy focuses on another (and non-English speaking) country—namely a divided Germany of 30 years ago, and specifically the West German regime of Chancellor Willy Brandt. It chronicles Brandt's fall from grace and glory because of the betrayal of an opportunistic functionary in his office, one Gunter Guillaume, an East German spy who wound up admiring the very man he was selling out. Ultimately, Frayn's play shifts from a divided country to the divided allegiances and hearts of individual characters, making a game anyone can play regardless of language or flag.

"Americans can play Germans as well as Brits or anyone," contends Frayn, who admits Democracy here comes over as a different play—but, he postscripts, "it always plays different if it's played by different actors because the play is incarnated in the actors."

And power plays know no real geographical boundaries. Democracy echoes situations Shakespeare stirred up in Rome (Julius Caesar) and Venice (Othello). There's something Iagoesque about Guillaume—up to a point, says Frayn: "Iago may love Othello—that's open for debate—but he wants to destory him. Guillaume doesn't want to destory Brandt at all. He absolutely wants to keep him going, but of course his activities destroy him."

Frayn and Blakemore, who have done eight plays together, have had better luck than most Brits in remaking their London hits with American actors—i.e., 1984's Noises Off, 1986's Benefactors and 2000's Tony-winning Copenhagen—so perhaps they're entitled to be a bit fearless. Plus, Blakemore has stuck around and gotten a number of New York productions under his belt. In 2000, he became the only director ever to win two Tonys in the same year—for drama (Copenhagen) and for musical (Kiss Me Kate). When you asked "The Berlin Ten" what attracted them to this project, almost every manjack of them responded in the same five words: "Michael Frayn and Michael Blakemore." And the feeling was entirely mutual, as far as the director is concerned.

"I've worked a lot with American actors, and I'm sort of loyal to the American acting community," says Blakemore, and the repeaters in Democracy second that motion.

His Willy Brandt, James Naughton, was directed to a Tony by Blakemore for City of Angels; he played a dime-novel-type detective in that, and here he is a photo-op presidential. He got Lee Wilkof to brush up his Shakespeare in Kiss Me Kate but put him to work here as a tenacious secret-police sleuth. "He uses people again if he feels they're right for something," says Wilkof. "The fact he would want to use me again made me feel great, made me feel he really trusted me." John Christopher Jones, Wilkof's nefarious associate, worked for Blakemore 17 years ago at Manhattan Theatre Club in The Day Room. "I'm sure that has something to do with me being cast in this," the actor says.

And of course Michael Cumpsty previously served The Two Michaels as a third of the Copenhagen triumvirate constantly on stage returning intellectual serves with Philip Bosco and a Tony-winning Blair Brown. In Democracy, he again is allowed very little time off-stage, glowering off to the side as the East German operative to whom Guillaume tells his tale of infiltrating Brandt's camp. "I wasn't excited about being on stage the whole show. I was afraid it might end up being really tedious, but actually I find it extremely involving. I love being there. I love watching it all form. Because it is in a way such a fragmented role, I think it would be more difficult to play if I wasn't there all the time—if I didn't feel like I was part of the engine that was driving the play."

As the two-faced but oddly not unappealing Guillaume, Richard Thomas is a long way from Walton Mountain, and that's fine with him. His career since television has covered the waterfront. "I usually play something I don't usually play," he says. "It's not about getting people to root for you—but I do think an interesting thing does happen to the audience in relationship to Guillaume because I think his humanity comes through as he becomes more connected to Brandt and goes through his own crisis of faith in what he's doing."

Richard Masur, who plays the power-broker who brings Guillaume aboard, was last on Broadway in 1973 in another Americanized English opus, The Changing Room, which took place in a soccer locker room. This is practically the first time you have seen his upper lip since. "Michael Blakemore asked me to shave my mustache," he says of The New Look. "I said, `You sure?' I had a lovely white mustache. I thought it would be perfectly acceptable, but he said not. He let Julian [Gamble] keep his mustache, but the rest of us—Richard [Thomas] took a beard off, Terry Beaver took his mustache off."

At least Blakemore kept the American accents and has no apology for that. "It was a play about Germans, after all, and there's no reason Germans should speak with an English accent. It's equally likely that they would have an American accent. Although I was devoted to the English cast, and they were very, very good, I felt that if we cast it with Americans it would resonate with the American public in terms of their own politics—not that West German politics are very similar to American politics, because they're not: West German politics at that time were coalition politics and America doesn't have coalitions. But, nevertheless, the particular types that emerge in politics would be far more recognizable to an American audience if they were played by Americans."

The cast gives their opening night curtain call
The cast gives their opening night curtain call Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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