The spy who ended a chancellor's job

For a lesson in politics and theater, sit down for a chat with Richard Thomas, one of the stars in the latest political work to hit Broadway, "Democracy."

Rather than focusing on American politicians - as many plays in New York have done in the past year - this one looks at the tenure of Willy Brandt, West Germany's first Social Democratic chancellor. Brandt was chancellor from 1969 to 1974, when he resigned after an East German spy was discovered on his staff. "Democracy" is a demanding but engaging piece that wowed critics in London and won several 2003 best-play awards in Britain.

Thomas, a Broadway actor since childhood, has taken on the play's biggest role, that of the "oily, overly obsequious" spy, Günter Guillaume. On stage, the boyish-looking actor energetically glides between collecting information in the chancellor's office and reporting back to his East German handler. When Guillaume rises from office lackey to Brandt's personal assistant, the similarities between the men come into relief: Both are fatherless, both are womanizers, both yearn for simplicity in their lives.

Taking his cues from playwright Michael Frayn, Thomas explains in a recent interview that "Democracy" is as much about the complexity of relationships as the complexity of the democratic political process. He even sees echoes of Shakespeare in the play. "You have the big picture of the relationships within the historical context, and then you have the intimate picture of the relationship between these two men at the heart of the play," he says.

"Democracy" appeals to Thomas because it doesn't have an agenda, and it also doesn't have an American perspective.

"It paints a picture of a process that we can relate to, even though we don't know anything about what parliamentary democracy looks like," he explains. "[It's] an examination of the sort of managed chaos that the democratic state is."

In the play's journey across the Atlantic, it has taken on an American cast. Director Michael Blakemore - at the helm of both productions - has said that by casting actors from the host country, the parallels with the political system in that country are more sharply drawn.

At a recent preview performance - just two nights after the US presidential election - lines about Brandt's reelection to another four-year term bringing more "indecision" and "intoxication with success" brought knowing laughs from the audience.

Thomas's perspective on the play is informed by a desire in his own life to seek out non-American views on the world and by his love of espionage novels. He points out that in this case, even though the spy scandal cost Brandt his job, that's not what the East Germans had intended. It was the information provided by Guillaume that reassured them that the chancellor intended to work diplomatically with their government. (Brandt received the 1971 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to improve relations with communist states.)

"The whole irony of the play is that trust in Brandt [by the East Germans] came about by having the spy," says Thomas. "He performed a service in some ways."

'Democracy' opens Nov. 18 at the Brooks Atkinson Theater.

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