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‘Democracy’ on the West side of a wall

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ut down that Sudoku and the daily crossword. A puzzle of a finer sort can be found at Olney Theatre Center's production of Michael Frayn's history play "Democracy," which challenges both the intellect and the senses.

The play's title refers not to our Founding Fathers, but to the efforts of revolutionary West German chancellor Willy Brandt to better relations between West and East Germany and resolve the ideological, political and economic conflicts between the two countries.

Set in the late '60s and early '70s, at the height of the Cold War (the Berlin Wall having been erected in 1961), "Democracy" takes you deep inside the meeting rooms and corridors of command during the Brandt years to give audiences a tense insider's view of politicians and the ever-shifting alliances and conspiracies that make their positions of power constantly precarious.

Mr. Frayn frames this examination of human nature in the relationship between Willy Brandt (Andrew Long) and Gunter Guillaume (Jeffries Thaiss), his devoted and omnipotent personal assistant. The two traveled together and vacationed together, and Mr. Guillaume handled the most sensitive documents as well as the procurement of young women for his boss. Mr. Brandt resigned in May 1974 after Mr. Guillaume was unmasked as an East German spy.

From the start, the audience is aware of Guillaume's dual role as he giddily reports on the chancellor's activities to Arno Kretschmann (James Slaughter), a shadowy figure who has the ability to melt into the background on both sides of the Berlin Wall, and then goes on to toady and ingratiate himself into Brandt's inner circle. By becoming what he calls "a coat rack," Guillaume is able to gain access not only to Brandt, but to his most trusted advisers — the scholarly Horst Ehmke (Richard Pilcher), sanctimonious Christian leader Herbert Werner (Hugh Nees), and the man who will be his successor, the humorless and hard-lining Helmut Schmidt (Vincent Clark).

Far from being a removed observer, Guillaume is infatuated with Brandt, worships and resents him in the way one would a pop idol or movie star. He believes in Brandt's idealism and protects him from his enemies both personal and private (Mr. Brandt struggled with depression and drinking bouts throughout his life), but he still betrays the leader's secrets to Kretschmann at every opportunity.

This schism is revealed in James Kronzer's eerily effective set of twin imposing gray edifices — the more traditional European architecture of West Germany on the left and the anonymous blocklike structures of East Germany on the right. Daniel MacLean Wagner's brilliant lighting wavers between the queasy yellow light that suggests interrogation and surveillance and a dingy greenish hue that evokes airless and shadowy spaces.

"Democracy" further explores the complexities of duality in the characters, in particular Brandt, a man of passion and principles whose inner life is chaos. Mr. Long searingly conveys the dark side of a visionary leader without resorting to the usual sad-sack depressive cliches and also reveals Brandt to be a man of secrets and a chameleonlike nature not too removed from that of Guillaume's. Mr. Thaiss is compulsive and marvelously controlled as Guillaume, someone who makes invisibility almost an art but is also a curiously magnetic presence.

Director Jim Petosa has cast "Democracy" impeccably, from Nick DePinto as the stoic and sullen bodyguard-barman Ulrich to James Konicek as the unctuous security chief and Clinton Brandhagen as a duplicitous Hans-Dietrich Genscher, longtime West German foreign minister. Mr. Petosa also engrosses the audience in what is an astoundingly word-dense play by keeping the actors arranged and rearranged in ingenious, puzzlelike groupings.

As demonstrated in his play "Copenhagen," which placed quantum physics in an achingly human context, Mr. Frayn is not content merely to re-create history and present a "you are there" evening of intellectual discourse. He also is intrigued by the intricacies of interconnection and loyalty as well as by the mystery of man's duality. How can we be so capable of loving and betrayal?

***1/2

WHAT: "Democracy" by Michael Frayn

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Through Aug. 12.

TICKETS: $25 to $46

PHONE: 301/924-3400

WEB SITE: www.olneytheatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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