An Enemy of the People: Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Lively, streamlined revival of Ibsen's classic accentuates both its melodrama and mordant humor.

Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas star in Ibsen's classic about a small-town doctor who attempts to warn the citizenry about the local spa's contaminated waters.

NEW YORK -- “Rollicking” is not a word that usually springs to mind in connection with Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, but it’s the best way to describe the Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of his 1882 classic An Enemy of the People. This “new version” by playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, directed by Doug Hughes, runs about an hour shorter than the original, features updated and colloquial language, and frequently accentuates the play’s comic elements. It’s sure to annoy purists and divide audiences, but there’s little doubt that this is a highly accessible and entertaining rendition of this rarely produced drama.

The melodramatic plot -- about a doctor in a coastal Norwegian town who finds himself increasingly besieged after he attempts to warn the citizens about the toxic effects of the waters in the spa on which it financially relies — has been borrowed countless times, perhaps most popularly in Peter Benchley’s Jaws. But it remains ever relevant, as evidenced by the current heated debate over the effects of global warming.

Director Hughes ratchets up the intensity beginning with the opening scene, depicting a lively family gathering at the home of Dr. Thomas Stockmann (four-time Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines). The raucous proceedings are interrupted by the arrival of a scientific report confirming Stockmann’s suspicion that the local waters are contaminated as a result of run-offs from a tannery owned by his rich father-in-law (Michael Siberry).

Simultaneously horrified by the findings and jubilant to have his theory proved, Stockmann immediately informs his brother Peter (Richard Thomas), who serves as both the town’s mayor and the chairman of the baths committee. But rather than responding with gratitude, the stuffy, self-possessed Peter immediately becomes defensive and warns his brother that if he makes his findings public the town will face devastating financial consequences.

Thomas turns to the radical editor (John Procaccino) of the local newspaper to spread the word by publishing the report in full. But he doesn’t count on the wiliness of his brother, who manages to turn the citizenry against him by, among other things, threatening to raise their taxes.

The streamlined narrative is delivered at a fever pitch, with the many scenes of angry confrontations featuring no shortage of loud shouting by the actors. But while the broad approach to the material certainly lacks subtlety, it does full justice to both its powerful urgency and frequent doses of mordant humor.

Gaines delivers a virtuoso performance in the central role, superbly conveying the character’s complex mixture of innate decency and willful pride, while Thomas, who has somewhat specialized in playing creepy characters in his mature years, is wonderfully entertaining as the scheming mayor who nonetheless loves his brother. The supporting roles are equally well handled, especially by Gerry Bamman as a self-important union leader; Kathleen McNenny as Stockmann’s loyal wife; and Siberry as his crafty, blustery father-in-law.

Unlike the lavish 1997 National Theatre production starring Ian McKellen, this staging is on the minimal side, with an effective revolving turntable set and a relatively small cast in which the understudies also play the townspeople in the pivotal climactic town hall meeting scene.  

Venue: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York (Runs through Nov. 11)
Playwright: Henrik Ibsen; new version by Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Cast: Boyd Gaines, Richard Thomas, Maite Alina, Gerry Bamman, Kathleen McNenny, Randall Newsome, John Procaccino, Michael Siberry, James Waterston
Director: Doug Hughes
Scenic designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Music and sound designer: David Van Tieghem

Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club