Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas in Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.” | JOAN MARCUS
BY DAVID KENNERLEY | What’s most remarkable about Henrik Ibsen’s angry, explosive drama “An Enemy of the People” is the uncanny durability of its themes. Written in 1882, the work reveals the hypocrisy of bigwig politicos and moneybags, the stubborn prejudices of a “solid majority,” and how the media can kowtow to selfish interests and squelch the truth.
Despite such evocative subject matter, various playwrights have tinkered with the work over the decades, attempting to smooth out the kinks and dust off the cobwebs. Even Arthur Miller tried his hand at an adaptation; nonetheless, according to the Internet Broadway Database, the 1950 Broadway production lasted a mere 36 performances, and a 1971 revival was short-lived as well.
And now, with a new script by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, based on a yet another translation by Charlotte Barslund, the Manhattan Theatre Club aims to break the curse by staging a definitive version in a flashy production, well timed in an election year.
Alas, like many hopeful political candidates, this “Enemy” is mostly full of hot air and fails to live up to its promise.
Initially, the plot seems solid enough. A coastal town in Norway is on the verge of an economic boom with its fancy new spa and restorative baths. But when the highly esteemed Dr. Thomas Stockmann, creator of the baths, discovers that the waters are toxic due to waste from a nearby tannery and tries to warn the townsfolk, the mayor (who happens to be his brother) tries to silence him. An overhaul would require the baths to shut down for at least two years and cost a fortune, which would mean layoffs and raising taxes. Thomas is branded an enemy of the people and pressed to recant his findings.
The play’s insistence on having it both ways may be its undoing. While we feel for Thomas’ need to tell the truth, we can’t help but sympathize with the greedy politicians and the rabble who don’t want their town to implode. Characters are so erratic it’s hard to take them seriously. By play’s end, everyone’s a culprit.
The vagueness of time period, created by a mishmash of late 19th century and early 21st-century sensibilities (Stockman calls newspaperman Hovstad a “closet freethinker” and himself an “outed freethinker”), only adds to the confusion. Head-scratching plot turns in the final act muddy the waters.
Try as they might, even the big guns cannot fix this problematic play. Multiple Tony Award-winner Boyd Gaines, who wowed critics in a surprisingly similar role as the holdout in “Twelve Angry Men,” is vigorously engaging as the idealistic protagonist willing to sacrifice comfort and position to do the right thing. But by the climactic town meeting, his Thomas is such a windbag he loses our support.
As the power-hungry, maniacal mayor locked in a rivalry with his upstanding brother, the preternaturally boyish Richard Thomas lacks the requisite evil streak.
For his part, director Doug Hughes, no stranger to soul-searching dramas such as “Doubt,” can’t stop the heavy-handed moralizing from consuming the play. Staging some of the action in the front row of the theater, however, is an inspired touch.
And while John Procaccino delivers a fine performance as Hovstad, the supposed radical editor of the People’s Messenger who initially begs to publish Thomas’ scandalous report, his flip-flop from truth champion to status quo protector is frustrating.
One of the hottest scenic designers in town, John Lee Beatty (“Other Desert Cities”), has crafted a gorgeous revolving set of Stockman’s tidy wood-paneled abode. Designer extraordinaire Catherine Zuber created the somber period costumes.
What’s especially fun about “Enemy” is identifying real-life parallels. Think of the tobacco companies’ denials of the cancerous effects of cigarettes in the 1960s. Or Al Gore, in his highly unpopular effort to warn about the calamitous effects of overdependence on fossil fuels and of global warming. Sadly, his name is now a punch line in certain circles.
And who can forget President Obama’s infamous comment at the height of the financial crisis? “I did not run for office,” he said, “to be helping out a bunch of, you know, fat-cat bankers on Wall Street.” He sounds eerily like Hovstad, who complains of oppressive fat cats getting rich off the backs of the common man. That candid quip, you may recall, came back to dog his presidency.
The man tasked with printing Thomas’ report, Aslaksen (a marvelously slippery Gerry Bamman), who heads the Temperance Society and represents the tradesmen, recognizes the power of the majority.
He also repeatedly urges “restraint” in such delicate matters (ironically, I counted use of this word 13 times, occasionally followed by an exclamation point). Sound advice that Ibsen and this unfocused, eager-to-please production chose to ignore.
AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE | Samuel J. Friedman Theatre | Manhattan Theatre Club | 261 W. 47th St. | Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; | Wed., Sat., Sun. at 2 p.m. | $67-120 | telecharge.org or 212-239-6200