Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas in AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: These overly verbose characters may irritate some Broadway theatregoers but An Enemy of the People features a stirring performance from Boyd Gaines and top-notch production values.
“Two brothers. One town. A flesh-eating virus. Who will survive?” “One mayor. One doctor. A cesspool of bacteria. Who will survive?” “Argument! Argument! Argument! Who will survive?” The possibilities of fun taglines for An Enemy of the People are endless. On the downside, Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 melodramatic(ally realistic) play features characters that represent themes but never seem like real, fleshed-out humans. On the plus side, this new version from Rebecca Lenkiewicz is a sharp, wisely edited adaptation.
Enemy takes place in a coastal town in southern Norway where tourists provide a consistent source of revenue. Here, we meet the town doctor named Thomas Stockmann (Boyd Gaines). Thomas is introduced as an upbeat, mild tempered, almost childishly playful father and husband. His household reminded me of my best friends’ houses growing up -- an open door policy for guests, yelling to people in the next room over, shoes scattered here and there. These opening moments nicely represent the bond between hard-working, free-thinking adults. Lenkiewicz’s adaptation cuts the Stockmann children, a choice I love. (Really, who would listen to a word these adults are saying if we could just watch child actors playing with blocks?)
The jovial mood is drastically changed when Thomas announces that – uh-oh! – there’s a horrible bacteria in the town’s water supply. This declaration sets the rest of the play in motion -- verbal motion, that is -- as the townspeople are forced to choose between the doctor and his brother, Mayor Peter Stockmann (Richard Thomas). It seems logical that everyone would want the situation fixed ASAP. But wait! “Two years. Minimum,” Peter informs us. That’s how long it will take to clean up this horrific mess. His vote? Keep this discovery on the D/L so the town doesn’t go bankrupt.
Everyone from the printer Aslaksen (a deliciously quirky Gerry Bamman) to the publisher Havstad (a powerful John Procaccino) so rapidly agrees with the mayor, they may as well have all shouted “Yes, mayor! You’re right! We hate your brother, that idiot! He’s an enemy!” Actually. I take that back. At one point, Doug Hughes directs everyone to react at the exact same time to the word ‘cesspool,’ and it is quite absurd. But you get the point.
Act I introduces the conflict but it’s Act II that’s more dramatically compelling, as the characters’ opinions, values and initiatives become tangled, twisted, shifted, ridiculed and attacked. What is so relatable here, over a hundred years after its original production, is the human need for immediacy. Taking the time to find a solution to the problem would mean less business now, even if it means dead bodies later. It’s much easier to shun Thomas as an outcast and have life continue as normal. Hovstad’s deep turmoil (“I don’t know where I am”) followed by a chilling silence perfectly sums up the significant dilemma of standing up for what is right.
If this all sounds too melodramatic... well, it is. But don’t worry: comic relief is sprinkled throughout. Sometimes it’s intentional (John Robert Tillotson as The Drunk, rambling and stumbling) and sometimes it’s unintentional (“You take care of the house, I’ll take care of society!” Dr. Stockmann shouts. And cue the biggest laugh of the day at such a dated notion.) I also chuckled a few times at the fact that so many characters vocalize their thoughts as if reciting the SparkNotes Themes of Enemy: “I know what the poor need: a voice!” “Bureaucracy works very slowly!” “Public opinion always shifts and changes!” In a written essay, I’m sure these statements would appear articulate and thought-out. On stage, they make Ibsen’s characters dangerously one and two dimensional. Unfortunately, a lot of these ideas are also shouted as if atop Mount Everest, making the town meeting sequence rather anticlimactic.
And yet, I was moved by this game cast. The women are thinly drawn, so sadly Kathleen McNenny and Maite Alina (Catherine and Petra Stockmann, respectively) don’t have much to do. McNenny, however, is undeniably touching in a heartfelt moment in which she offers her support to her husband. Richard Thomas at times too broadly paints Peter as Town Villain, especially in a half-clever half-campy moment where he is the only thing lit on stage and he stares ominously at the audience. And as a misunderstood genius whose back is against the wall, Boyd Gaines delivers a complex, charged performance.
The music between scenes designed by David Van Tieghem is grand, theatrical and completely fitting. The set by John Lee Beatty is beautiful, especially how up close and personal it becomes in the climax, plus a particular moment that brilliantly threw many audience members off-guard.
This show’s got impeccable technical aspects and a riveting performance from Boyd Gaines. With an Enemy like that, who needs another Broadway show?
(An Enemy of the People plays at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street through November 18, 2012. Performances are Tuesdays at 7PM; Wednesdays at 2PM and 7PM; Thursday and Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM; and Sundays at 2PM. Tickets are $67 - $120 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200. For more show info visit anenemyofthepeoplebroadway.com.)