LONDON—A week-long spree of London theatergoing inevitably results in a case of anticipatory déjà vu: Something tells you that you’ll be seeing the same productions next season in New York. A dampening thought. The future may be here, but it’s hardly worth the Valium-induced coma of a transatlantic flight these days. Not that the dramatic offerings in Britain don’t seem far superior on paper. Imagine a Broadway moment when one could attend major revivals of Beckett, Pinter, and Stoppard. That’s possible right now in the West End, with Peter Hall’s straightforward productions of Happy Days and Betrayal competing for ticket buyers against David Leveaux’s splashy staging of Jumpers. Of course such canonical fare seems like small potatoes when compared with the marketing machine of Jerry Springer—The Opera. (I knew I was in trouble when the usher asked if I wanted to buy a program or “the official production guide.”) Thankfully, there’s always the Royal National Theatre for understated quality—even if the London critics can’t help turning Michael Frayn’s oh-so-serious-minded Democracy into a “hugely entertaining” hit. (“Essential viewing” it may be, but all the blurbs in the world couldn’t keep the row of American high school students from slumbering.) Like the winter sales at Harrods, the overheated hype assures that the vacation goods you’re blindly hoarding are of the rarest quality.
Still, if the theatrical scene was less than transcendent, it’s always invigorating to steep yourself in a culture where theater matters—not only as source of tourist dollars but as an evolving reflection on the way we live and create. Democracy may underscore the relative nature of “best play of the year,” but it’s definitely the smartest thing I encountered on the London stage. A theatricalized narrative of a short but important chapter in the Cold War, the piece spans the period from 1969 to 1974 when the left-of-center Willy Brandt served as German chancellor and, fending off his Machiavellian political rivals, negotiated an improbable rapprochement between West and East. Frayn’s treatment is a model of novelistic complexity, constructing a story of historical events that, like the author’s award-heaped Copenhagen, resists not only schematic values but interpretive closure as well. Pity that Democracy isn’t really a play but a nuanced meditation on political personalities whose conflicts are never larger than the epochal battles engulfing them.
Frayn is too astute an observer of history to reduce his plot to an instance of villainous double-cross. True, Brandt’s personal assistant, Günter Guillaume (Conleth Hill), rises to prominence in the chancellor’s office while spying for the Stasi. But the viper’s nest of party factions makes treason the rule rather than the exception. Complexly accurate as this may be, the playwright might have done better to follow the example of Shakespeare, who shaped out of the documentary record plays that illuminate not so much the puzzling course of chronological circumstances but enduring human patterns. Yet Michael Blakemore’s sparely elegant production goes a long way toward making the prosy story theater-worthy. Credit for this belongs largely to Roger Allam, who turns in a quietly staggering performance as Brandt. In the darkening crevices of the actor’s face lies the real drama of his character’s seemingly impossible task.
Democracy may fall short of its gushing encomiums, but one can’t help feeling grateful for an imagination stirred by such quietly consequential foreign affairs. Leveaux’s production of Stoppard’s rambunctious 1972 comedy Jumpers leaves one appreciative for a different reason. Not a great play, it’s a farcical intrigue centered on Dorothy (Essie Davis), a prematurely retired music hall singer implicated in the murder of an academic acrobatic (one of the eponymous jumpers) that occurred on the night of her big comeback. In the midst of the felonious mayhem, Dorothy’s shambling philosophy professor husband (a frumpy Simon Russell Beale in high intellectual anguish) dictates to his mysteriously silent secretary the dead-end drafts of his public lecture, “Man—Good, Bad, or Indifferent.”
Lacking ultimately in mature artistic vision, Jumpers settles instead for metaphysical twaddle and horseplay. Leveaux, fresh from his recent staging of Nine, treats the material as though it had the makings of yet another Fellini musical. The production’s spirited superficiality, however, is unable to disguise the lack of true depth, which not even the bottomlessly neurotic Beale can supply. Still, the highly cooked production provides a snapshot of an ingenious playwright amassing his theatrical skills—in short, a reaffirmation of the living tradition that allowed Stoppard to develop into the author of Arcadia and The Invention of Love.
Space and jet lag permit only a brusque sneer at Jerry Springer—The Opera, a cacophonous extravaganza that tries to send up the TV talk show while doing everything in its power to appeal to its sizeable international audience. Needless to say, it seems pointless to create a full-scale musical that’s equal parts parody and celebration—not to mention one that’s merchandised to the hilt with T-shirts that say “Talk to the Hand” and “Jerry! Jerry!” As opera it’s merely badly sung gimmickry, while the book devolves into levels of inanity that Springer himself might object to. Two American teens exiting the theater were shaking their heads at the talentlessness of what they had paid dearly to see. Honor students, no doubt. Advice to kids planning an imminent theater trip: Take the subway to Times Square and check out I Am My Own Wife, Aunt Dan and Lemon, and Wonderful Town.