You almost have to admire the devilishly intricate dilemma Henrik Ibsen creates for his hero in "An Enemy of the People." It's diabolical.
Minute by minute, the pressure piles on the shoulders of Dr. Thomas Stockmann, a rather vain scientist who has discovered that the spa town of his birth is built on toxic water. Yet this well-intentioned whistleblower is put in an untenable spot, and eventually branded an enemy of the people.
A fine Manhattan Theatre Club's production that opened Thursday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre starts shakily but ends as a full-throated defense of the individual.
Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas are marvelous as the battling brothers at the heart of the play, but there are terrific turns also by Gerry Bamman, Michael Siberry and Kathleen McNenny. Director Doug Hughes paces it like a thriller, with the heat rising steadily.
In his egotistical and naive way, Stockmann expects a parade in his honor when he finds proof that the baths in his 19th century Norwegian town are a health threat. But the town depends on the tourists who flock to the baths and the mayor, who happens to be Stockmann's brother, is nonplussed by the science. Or is it sibling rivalry?
At first, Stockmann gets the support of the press - represented by journalist Hovstad (a complicated John Procaccino) - and the mainstream townsfolk - represented by a prominent citizen and printer Aslaksen (Bamman). They want to use the issue to attack the town leaders. But that plan disappears as soon as the mayor points out the economic disaster that closing the baths would entail. Public opinion, so fickle, has shifted, but Stockmann can't back down or compromise.
"I want to be able to look my sons in the eye when they grow up into free men," he says.
Watching the pendulum swing from Stockmann in control to his brother getting the upper hand is a pleasure, with four-time Tony Award winner Gaines becoming increasingly despondent and wild, while Thomas plays his character with gleeful unctuousness.
McNenny, as Stockmann's wife (and Gaines' real-life wife), is fierce in a part that burns bright but for too short a time. Her character both appreciates her husband's sense of honor but also sees the disaster his lost income and exile would bring.
"I have truth and honor on my side," says Stockmann.
"What good are they when you have no power?" she replies. But save for a few strong scenes, Ibsen puts Mrs. Stockman on the sidelines - a shame.
By now the townspeople have become a mob and that has given Hughes an opportunity to make his staging spill into the audience. For Stockmann's courtroom-like defense of the exceptional individual over the ordinary throng, Hughes has gotten five actors to occupy the theater's first row and cheer and boo. One is drunk. Democracy, Ibsen is saying, is a foul-mouthed mob.
The web of pressure relentlessly closes on Stockmann. His father-in-law, who may be responsible for the toxins, gives him an ultimatum that affects his family's financial health, and the townsfolk approach the doctor again with a scheme to make money if he will only retract his findings. His brother never relents: Blood, of course, proves less thick than sludge.
No matter, says Stockman, who keeps his sense of humor even as he fights to keep honest.
"They tore my best trousers," he says. "The first lesson of freedom fighting, never wear your favorite trousers when you go out to fight for truth and justice."
The production benefits from John Lee Beatty's spare, unfussy sets and Catherine Zuber's striking costumes, particularly the black leather trench worn by Hovstad. The palette here is plenty of grays, darks and muted colors - perfect for a grim look at morality.
Other than the acting, there's little subtlety in this play, which often feels more like a lecture. Environmentalists will find a warning about global warming and libertarians may pull out an articulate defense of individualism.
But theater-goers without a political agenda get to watch a bunch of actors at the top of their game. "The strongest man," says Stockmann at the rather overwrought conclusion. "He's always alone." Not to be rude, but this great cast proves the opposite.
One word comes up more than a dozen times in the new Broadway revival of “An Enemy of the People”: “restraint.” Ironically, it’s exactly what’s lacking in this amped-up production of the Henrik Ibsen classic, which is broader than the Otra River.
That’s in southern Norway, the setting for this late 19th-century portrait of Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Boyd Gaines), who discovers that lucrative local baths are toxic. His efforts to report the danger are silenced by community efforts led by his brother Peter (Richard Thomas), the mayor. Cleanup would bankrupt the spa town.
A juicy conflict bubbles: Man against the masses. There’s potential to speak eloquently about enduring issues: hypocrisy, doing the right thing and the power of the individual and a sound infrastructure.
But this 1882 play by Ibsen, a pioneer in realism, has never seemed more simplistic and black-and-white than in this version. Its 11th-hour twists come off as contrived.
Partly it’s the play, which leads to one of two all-or-nothing outcomes — duplicity or despair. No room is made for compromise solutions. The author drives home his points but baldly.
Shortfalls are magnified in this staging for Manhattan Theatre Club by director Doug Hughes (“Doubt”) from a streamlined and strident adaptation by British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Changes in characters’ attitudes come abruptly.
As directed, performances present their own issues as scenes unfold in the Stockmann home, a newspaper office and town hall.
Gaines, a four-time Tony winner seen last season in MTC’s “The Columnist,” plays Stockmann with an antic energy and the goofy grin of a kid headed to a science fair. He calls himself an “outed” freethinker (one of several modern allusions), but he’s got his head in the sand. The do-gooding doc is clueless that his report will ruffle feathers. Idealism is one thing; blindness another.
As his arrogant brother, Thomas, a frequent stage presence still known for “The Waltons,” strides around in a black cloak, top hat and walking stick. He’s inches from being a stock villain in a penny dreadful.
Kathleen McNenny, who plays the doc’s backboned wife (and really is married to Gaines), and Maite Aline, his take-charge, protofeminist daughter, fare better at shading their characters.
The Act II crowd scene in which townfolk decry Dr. Stockmann as “an enemy of the people” comes off as noisy. It’s as though the production is heeding what Stockmann says when taking his report to be published: “Every single exclamation mark stays. If in doubt, add more.”
But screaming isn’t always the best way to present an argument — or a play.
Up until intermission, “An Enemy of the People” seems like your run-of-the-mill Roundabout period revival. The casually paced production is dignified, well-acted by likable stars such as Boyd Gaines (“Gypsy”) and Richard Thomas (“Race” and, of course, “The Waltons”), and competently directed by Doug “Doubt” Hughes.
So you settle into your seat, ready for an innocuous, snoozy night out.
But it’s another story after the break. With the exposition out of the way, it feels as if somebody had applied defibrillator paddles to the show and shocked it into life.
Henrik Ibsen’s drama may have been written in 1882, but its portrayal of life-threatening pollution, public health versus personal gain, and soul-destroying compromises could have been pulled from today’s headlines.
Then as now, it’s not easy to be a whistleblower. The play’s Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Gaines) discovers that the local, famed public baths have been contaminated by toxic runoffs.
Unfortunately, the news isn’t as welcome as he expected it would be.
“Our only revenue is as a spa town. So you tell me now, how will we survive?”
Asking this pointed question is the mayor, who happens to be the doctor’s brother, Peter (Thomas).
Stockmann’s supporters abandon him one by one, including the activist newspaper editor (John Procaccino) who was supposed to publish the doctor’s findings. Even his wife (Kathleen McNenny) begs him to desist.
In the face of so much resistance, Stockmann’s situation goes quickly downhill — and this trimmed-down adaptation moves just as fast, thanks to a new, punchy translation by the British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz.
Suddenly, our crusader finds himself on the receiving end of accusations. The hostilities are staged like an impromptu kangaroo court, with some characters running down the aisles to make a point, others yelling out from the first row.
Enraged, the townies declare Stockmann “an enemy of the people.” He responds in kind, delivering a full-throated diatribe against the destructive power a group can yield.
Gaines, who often plays good guys and saps, makes the most of his sympathy capital. At first you feel for his character, especially since he has noble intentions. But then he claims, self-servingly, that “the majority is the most insidious enemy to freedom.” So much for democracy.
Stockmann even toys with migrating to America — “The majority’s rampant there too,” he concedes, “but at least it’s more dispersed.” That’s not counting with another series of plot twists and reversals.
No matter where he ends up, you may find yourself pondering whether he’s a savior or a menace long after the show is over.
“Every single exclamation mark stays,” says the riled-up Dr. Thomas Stockmann in the new Broadway staging of “An Enemy of the People,” Ibsen’s 1882 drama about a man’s lonely battle for truth against the arrayed forces of a society bent on self-protection. “If in doubt,” he continues, “add more.”
The good doctor’s fiery admonition might stand as the epigraph for this high-intensity, high-volume production, which opened on Thursday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, presented by Manhattan Theater Club. As directed by Doug Hughes, with a fervent Boyd Gaines in the role of the embattled Dr. Stockmann and a silky-sinister Richard Thomas as his brother and staunch foe, Ibsen’s potent play reaches a rapid boil in the seething confrontation between the brothers that concludes the first act. It rarely simmers down for the rest of the evening.
The pedal-to-the-metal approach has its advantages. With voices clamoring from the stage at top volume for much of the evening, your attention is rarely likely to stray from the finely spun web of ideas animating Ibsen’s play, about the ruckus raised in a Norwegian spa town when the local doctor discovers that the waters are poisoned. At a time when America’s political discourse is reaching fever pitch in advance of the presidential election, the play’s heated discussion of just who should control the levers of power in a society, and whether the intellectually superior, forward-thinking individual or the mindless majority should dictate public policy, makes for savory meat to chew on after the curtain has fallen.
While the shouting sometimes threatens to leave the actors nowhere to go but to a skilled ear, nose and throat doctor, it’s also true that Ibsen’s play is hardly his most nuanced drama of an individual at odds with the social order of his time. “An Enemy of the People” lends itself to inflammatory theatrics, particularly in the climactic scene in which poor Dr. Stockmann is assailed by a chorus of townspeople viciously taunting him with the epithet of the title. This rousing set-to would fall pretty flat if voices were not raised beyond a gentle murmur.
It’s gratifying to see Mr. Gaines, a Broadway veteran with four Tony awards to his name (for “The Heidi Chronicles,” “She Loves Me,” “Contact” and “Gypsy”) get the opportunity to dig into such a rewarding classical role. (Dr. Stockmann was a favorite part of no less a theater god than Stanislavsky.) Productions of Ibsen are rare on Broadway, where the approved list of revivals seems to be shrinking down to a handful of market-tested, star-spangled 20th-century American classics.
Mr. Gaines takes confident advantage of this prized chance, giving a sterling performance that allows us to see Dr. Stockmann from all the perspectives Ibsen intended. A once-struggling doctor who now freely rejoices in the financial rewards that his status as the staff physician at the spa have brought, he brims with good will in the play’s opening scenes. Mr. Gaines scampers around the stage with almost boyish high spirits, in amusing contrast to the prim, buttoned-up rectitude of the brother, Peter (Mr. Thomas), the town’s mayor and the chairman of the spa that promises to bring untold trickle-down prosperity to the citizenry.
The brothers part ways violently when Thomas reveals that he has conducted a series of tests that prove his grave suspicion: Far from being salubrious, the town’s spa waters are actually harmful, thanks to the decision taken by its leaders (namely Peter) to go against Thomas’s recommendation about where to lay the pipes.
Thomas is galvanized by the discovery, at first assured that he will be hailed as the town’s hero when his report is published in the newspaper, with all those exclamation points in place. But even as he preens, he is driven above all by the belief that the truth must be brought forth: for him the public good and right conduct dictated by reason are indistinguishable. Mr. Gaines’s forceful performance makes us see how deeply held these beliefs are, and how shaken he is by the discovery that his view puts him in a lonely minority of one.
“An Enemy of the People,” presented here in a clear translation by Rebecca Lenkiewicz occasionally dotted by British-isms, does not rank among Ibsen’s most subtly drawn or evenly textured plays. The smoothness with which Ibsen embodied theme through character and incident in his greatest plays is absent here. Dr. Stockmann is really its only fully rounded, complicated character.
His brother, the pragmatic Peter, offers Mr. Thomas a chance to play a single-minded villain with elegant authority. Peter’s unruffled imperiousness only falters in the tense face-off that closes the first act, and is perhaps the production’s highlight, as we watch how long-festering sibling rivalry and firmly opposed worldviews bring the brothers almost to blows.
But the numerous ancillary characters are thinly conceived and at times crudely manipulated by Ibsen to achieve his dramatic ends. There are excellent performances from John Procaccino, as the newspaper publisher Hovstad; Gerry Bamman, as the printer Aslaksen; and Michael Siberry, as Dr. Stockmann’s father-in-law, Morten Kiil. Yet their transition from staunch supporters of Dr. Stockmann to angry opponents is abrupt to the point of dramatic contrivance. Ibsen makes glaringly clear how these men are driven almost solely by personal interests, in stark opposition to Dr. Stockmann, who insists on standing by his principles even if it means his beloved wife (the warm Kathleen McNenny) and children will be driven to destitution.
In the play’s climactic scene, he is denounced by the townspeople he looked to for support, and denounces them right back. Mr. Gaines delivers great gusts of rhetoric — “The most dangerous public enemy is the majority!” “Over the centuries what were truths reconfigure as lies.” — with a blistering sense of outrage. Looking beyond the sometimes creaking dramaturgy, it is startling to discover how current the play’s ideas can feel. At a time when American politicians are regularly accused of following the polls or kowtowing to self-interested factions instead of taking stands driven by their own beliefs — if indeed they can be proven to have any — Dr. Stockmann’s unbending morals and his contempt for the unthinking majority can seem both radical and invigorating.
That said, I hasten to add that the last thing the country’s political discourse needs is another boatload of exclamation points.
They didn't have our word for whistle-blower when Henrik Ibsen wrote "The Enemy of the People" in 1882. As this jagged fist of a revival proves with such ripping theatricality, however, just such a moral crusader -- bristling with noble idealism and, inevitably, tragicomic human frailties -- was very much a part of the psyche, the economy and the hypocrisy of the late 19th century.
Don't be put off by any grumbles about the conversational, tightened two-hour adaptation that the Manhattan Theatre Club uses for the rare Broadway production of this timely classic. Yes, British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz tosses off the occasional jarring anachronism -- "cash cow," "restraining order," etc.
But she, director Doug Hughes and this first-rate cast -- headed by Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas -- are true to both the playwright and to theatergoers hungry for a play as wise about human nature as it is entertaining. Ibsen himself was uncertain whether to call this a comedy or drama, noting it has "traits of comedy" but is "based on a serious idea."
And what an idea -- supposedly one far-reaching enough to have inspired "Jaws." Gaines plays a doctor who discovers that the poor town's lucrative new spas are polluted with bacteria from the tannery owned by the father (wonderfully played with old-cowboy menace by Michael Siberry) of his wife (Kathleen McNenny). Worse, the baths were built incorrectly by his brother (Thomas), the rigid and egomaniacal mayor and his rich cronies.
Hughes, in his most muscular, richly ambiguous work since "Doubt," revels in the conscious and unconscious duplicity of these characters. When Gaines first bursts into his cozy Norwegian home (swift-turning sets by John Lee Beatty), the doctor seems too flighty and self-dramatizing to be the evening's hero. Indeed, soon his disheveled, childlike quality folds deeply into the faults that derail his truth.
Thomas has fewer colors to explore as the villain, but they keep getting darker. Almost no one is safe from Ibsen's X-ray vision, not the muckraking journalist (John Procaccino), the radical (James Waterston), the union boss (Gerry Bamman) and, especially, the "people" so easily manipulated into turning their savior into their "enemy." Funny, in an eerie way, how the word "taxes" can turn a liberal majority into a mob.
How far would you go to defend an unpopular truth? It's a timely question in an election season; and suffice it to say that Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the hero of An Enemy of the People, would make a pretty lame politician.
Henrik Ibsen's 1882 study of courage and its consequences spins a tale of two very different men: the physician and his brother, Peter, who happens to be mayor of their coastal Norwegian town. Where truthful Thomas risks his personal and professional standing to reveal a health hazard threatening the community, Peter is more concerned with his grasp on power than his constituents' well-being --or Thomas', for that matter.
But in the new version of Enemy(* * * out of four) that opened Thursday at Broadway's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, the siblings can hardly be written off as opposing forces of darkness and light. British dramatist Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who first adapted the play for London's Arcola Theatre, takes care to make Thomas fully, frustratingly human -- a tricky task, given that the character is widely thought to represent Ibsen himself.
Though conceived before Ghosts, Ibsen's provocative indictment of Victorian moral hypocrisy, Enemy has been interpreted as in part a response to the scandal created by the former play. Just as Ibsen faced public and critical scorn, Thomas is confronted with angry townspeople and betrayed by journalists, both groups egged on by Peter and his minions; and he can only conclude that the masses are malleable and unreasonable.
If Lenkiewicz's blunt, sometimes crass choices sap Ibsen's language of some of its seductive lyricism, she and director Doug Hughes also mitigate Enemy's pedantic leanings by emphasizing the haughtiness that mingles uncomfortably with Thomas' virtue. At one point, he declares himself not just a member of a rational, intelligent minority but a "genius" among "idiots."
This Manhattan Theatre Club production also has a huge asset in leading man Boyd Gaines, whose Thomas is a distinctly earthbound but still mesmerizing force of nature -- by turns formidable, frail, frazzled, funny and tragic. Gaines captures all the arrogance and compassion of a man devoted to a noble but impossible cause, letting us see both the wisdom in his words and their futility.
The actor has a worthy foil in fellow stage stalwart Richard Thomas, whose Peter is at once convincingly petty and paranoid and smooth enough to be an authentic player. The supporting cast is mostly excellent, particularly John Procaccino as a jaded editor and Gerry Bamman as his cynical printer.
Hughes cannily pokes through the fourth wall in Enemy's climactic crowd scene, having ensemble members cast as hoi polloi cheer and jeer characters' conflicting perspectives from orchestra seats. It's about as credible as anything you're likely to see in the upcoming presidential debates, and likely more entertaining.
Never mind how Jesus might vote in the upcoming election. More to the point is how Henrik Ibsen might cast his ballot, since his 1882 political drama, "An Enemy of the People," argues both sides of an ideological conundrum that has tripped up both presidential candidates. Purists may flinch at Rebecca Lenkiewicz's bare-bones adaptation, which diminishes all the secondary characters and strips all the (admittedly repetitive) subplots of their nuance. But when Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas square off for the Cain-and-Abel power play between brothers, we could be on the hustings.
Helmer Doug Hughes has smartly staged that climactic showdown in the orchestra of the theater. Although Ibsen makes it quite clear that Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Boyd Gaines) keeps a modest home and struggling medical practice in the seaside Norwegian town where the play is set, the cramped rooms and low ceilings of John Lee Beatty's submarine-scaled set feel so confining that it's a release to see the actors stride down the aisle and take their places both on stage and in the front rows of the auditorium.
But before we get to the fireworks, there's a little thing called a plot that has to be set up. In this austere version, it's quickly established that Stockmann, a man of science, has amassed incontrovertible evidence that the local tannery owned by his rich father-in-law has contaminated the medicinal public baths that are expected to bring immediate prosperity to his economically depressed and slowly recovering town.
Last seen on Broadway in "The Columnist," Gaines is a protean performer (he sings! he dances! he does drama!) adept at physically insinuating himself into a role while playing beyond type. Eyes ablaze with idealistic fervor, the thesp perfectly captures the messianic fervor with which Stockmann triumphantly commits his findings to an incendiary expose to be published in the local liberal newspaper.
Without missing a beat, Gaines also plays the colossal arrogance of the "pure" idealist who naively expects the citizens of the town to declare him a hero for plunging them back into economic ruin. Gaines even taps into the lack of self-awareness that makes Stockmann so touching in his childish yearning to exchange the anonymity of his dull life for a taste of fame and fortune and good times. "It was pretty grim," he admits, in Lenkiewicz's overly idiomatic treatment of the colloquial language Ibsen chose for this play.
Going into the public forum to justify his findings to the townspeople, Stockmann looks like a fatted fly waiting to be gobbled up by his evil spider of a brother, the town Mayor underplayed to chilling effect by Richard Thomas. Subtle villain that he is, Thomas keeps the Mayor's self-serving manipulations literally hidden under the slouch hat and oversized black overcoat designed by Catherine Zuber. His soft voice and reserved manner a menacing contrast to his brother's bombastic truth-telling, the Mayor quietly stirs the ignorant populace into a violent mob.
Falling into his brother's trap, Stockmann opens his defense in classic Romney mode, exposing the voters (that is, his fellow citizens) as the uneducated ignoramuses they are. After denouncing the town politicians for their cynicism, greed and hypocrisy, he identifies the "deadliest enemies of freedom and truth." And who, pray tell, would that be?
"The most dangerous public enemy is the majority!" rants Stockmann, who is shocked -- shocked! -- that the "common man" should refuse to acknowledge the intellectually superior specimens of his own species. How can the unwashed and uneducated masses deny that they perpetuate their own ignorance by violently suppressing anything nobler than their own selfishly conservative values?
By the time that Stockmann recovers himself and takes a more democratic position -- explaining that he is not referring to the false superiority of personal wealth or social class or political power, but the genuine superiority of a noble character -- the damage has been done.
Clearly, MTC has lucked out with its timing of this classic drama, its Victorian-era polemics ordinarily a bit simplistic -- but given the peculiar insanity of election politics, right on the money.