Michael Frayn seemed unfazed on Nov. 1, just two days before the first Broadway preview of his newest London hit, "Democracy." Tall, lean and friendly, the 71-year-old dramatist ("Copenhagen," "Noises Off") and author ("Spies") chatted in his room at Washington's brainy, exclusive Cosmos Club. Frayn had Amtrakked from New York for an evening at Theatre J, where later that night he would discuss his play with The Washington Post's chief drama critic, Peter Marks, before a full house. (The Goethe Institute and the German Historical Institute sponsored the event.)
"When I wrote 'Copenhagen,' I certainly thought nobody would produce it, let alone see it," he told Backstage of his play about a much-speculated-upon 1941 meeting between Danish physicist Niels Bohr and German physicist Werner Heisenberg. At issue in the play is how much and with what motivation did Heisenberg tell Bohr about Nazi Germany's atomic bomb project. During Broadway previews for "Copenhagen," recalled Frayn, a woman wrote him to say, "If you don't take all the science out of that play," it will flop. Well, the play achieved critical mass, science and all.
"Democracy" tells a Cold War tale of the 1974 downfall of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt (also a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former mayor of West Berlin) after his aide Guenter Guillaume was exposed as an East German spy. "Brandt was a great international figure" even before he became chancellor, said Frayn, "because he was the mayor of Berlin at the time the Russians were trying to absorb Berlin into East Germany."
Will American audiences view the story with the urgency Frayn invests in it, or share his admiration for Brandt's efforts to maintain a vestige of cooperation between the two Cold War Germanys?
The playwright has no idea. "You never know with plays," said Frayn, who noted that he made one concession to U.S. audiences with "a lot of changes of British/English images" to more American ones.
"After all, these are German characters," he said.
At the Berlin production of "Democracy" in May, two former West German officials who served with Brandt told Frayn he'd gotten many details right about the inner circles of their Social Democratic government but indicated that he'd made Guillaume "more interesting than he actually was."
In both "Copenhagen" and "Democracy," Frayn doesn't paint the compromised characters of Heisenberg and Guillame as villains. "I don't wish to judge the characters," he said. "In a good play, all the characters should be able to make their case."
The playwright doubts "Democracy" will cause the disputatious stir that "Copenhagen" did over Heisenberg's role in World War II. "I can't imagine that anyone is going to stand up and say, 'You've been soft on Willy Brandt,' " he said. In the realm of contemporary politics, Frayn said he remains a fan of British Prime Minister Tony Blair: "I only know two remaining supporters -- one is me and the other is my 8-year-old granddaughter."
Silly Walks and Funny Masks
Holly Twyford, Kate Eastwood Norris and Lucy Newman-Williams, actresses known for their range and skills, have been put through extra paces in the Folger Theatre's production of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," which starts previews Thursday and runs till Dec. 19.
Each plays a droll servant to one of the young lovers in Shakespeare's early comedy of romantic betrayal and disguise, plus several other roles (outlaws, a dog and a duke, among others). They also don various types of stage masks for certain personas. Two-sided masks and other quick changes can have them playing two people simultaneously or several people consecutively.
"You don't often get to use your mask skills," says Newman-Williams, who refreshed her technique by studying privately with Dody DiSanto at the Shakespeare Theatre's Academy for Classical Acting.
Eastwood Norris studied mask work and commedia dell'arte years ago in Italy, where she "learned to make my body as big as the facial features" on the mask. As designed by Aaron Cromie, the masks in "Two Gentlemen of Verona" are smaller, "complex character masks." It hasn't been easy for Eastwood Norris to downsize her movements. "I've heard a lot of 'no,' 'don't' and 'less' " from director Aaron Posner, she says with a chuckle.
Another hurdle, explains Twyford, is blending styles: "When there's a masked character talking to a non-masked character, you have to make it a believable relationship."
The three actresses assume the roles of six outlaws in another scene, using two-sided masks to play all the characters. Imagine carrying on a conversation between faces attached to the right and left sides of your own. Their clowning and mask work has been guided by Patty Gallagher, an assistant professor of theater at the University of California at Santa Cruz and assistant director of the San Francisco School of Circus Arts Clown Conservatory.
Gallagher concedes that "at first the women were really frustrated with the slowness with which they were learning to do these new things. But it's as if somebody said, 'Okay, now you have to type only with your toes.' . . . You have to create a completely different architecture of the body for each of those characters while this is happening."
She cites Newman-Williams's dual outlaw characters as polar opposites, like Happy and Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs. At rehearsal, she says, "the contrast between her perky, Pollyanna-ish character and the stick-in-the-mud guy -- we can barely contain ourselves."
"The work is never easy and it is always delightful . . . hilarious and grueling all at once."
* Jeffrey Carlson, who made his Broadway debut in "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?," will play the title character, Lorenzo de Medici, in the Shakespeare Theatre's "Lorenzaccio" (Jan. 18-March 6) by Alfred de Musset. Robert Cuccioli (he starred in "Jekyll and Hyde" on Broadway) will play the Duke of Florence. Frequent Shakespeare Theatre lead Wallace Acton ("Richard III," "Hamlet") was originally cast as Lorenzaccio, but had to bow out to honor business commitments.
* The Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., has a new managing director: Barbara Rollins, who for the past decade was a production stage manager at Arena Stage in Washington. Catherine Irwin, CATF's outgoing managing director, will head the festival's Casting the Future initiative for long-range expansion goals.