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October 27, 2012

"An Enemy of the People" Fails to Win Me Over


With just 10 days to go before the election and Romney steadily gaining on Obama, you probably don’t need anyone to tell you how disappointing idealism can sometimes be, how messy democracy often is, or how money always holds the power to corrupt. But just in case you need a reminder, the Manhattan Theatre Club is presenting a revival of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, now playing at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

Ibsen was a true iconoclast, dedicated to punching holes in the hypocrisies of his day. In An Enemy of the People, which he wrote in 1882, he jabs at both sides when the the forces of morality line up against those of expediency. 

On the side of righteouness is Thomas Stockman, a doctor and public health official who discovers that the water in his town is contaminated and prepares a report detailing both the problem and a costly remedy that he thinks will be well received because it will keep people from becoming ill.

On the pragmatic side is his brother Peter, the town’s mayor who is determined to keep the doctor’s findings secret because the news will drive away the tourists who visit the baths in which the town has invested heavily and that are its main source of revenue.

This being Ibsen, An Enemy of the People is a talky play but the talk in this production has been updated by the British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz (click here to read an interview with her).   

Her adaptation makes for easier listening—and a shorter running time of just two hours—but my husband K and I found the 21st century colloquialisms, including a lot of non-deleted expletives, to be jarring in the mouths of 19th century characters.

The Stockman brothers are played by Boyd Gaines, usually one of my faves; and Richard Thomas, whose work I’ve also enjoyed in the past.  But both seem off their game in this production.   

Gaines plays Thomas as more of a petulant naïf than a man of burning conviction. Meanwhile Thomas turns Peter into a Snidely Whiplash, complete with cape, top hat and a sneering smile. 

The characterizations undermine the complexities that Ibsen created. And it’s hard to root for either side when the advocates are so unconvincing. 

In fact, the entire production has the air of a melodrama performed by a well-meaning but minor-league theater troupe, complete with overwrought emoting, conspicuous sound effects and dreary lighting. 

When that much is wrong, the buck has to stop at the desk of the director, who in this case is Doug Hughes. Even his idea of having actors sit in the front row in an effort to make the audience part of the play's climactic town meeting comes off as hokey.

In that final debate, the Stockman brothers compete for the support of the townspeople.  All I can say is that I hope life doesn’t imitate art on Nov. 6.

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