SHOUTING FOR THE MAJORITY
In the wake of Occupy Wall Street and the rise of the 99%, Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 political drama An Enemy of the People crackles with contemporary relevance. Manhattan Theatre Club’s production is painted in bold and brash strokes, but it certainly strikes while the iron is hot – just before the November 2012 election – and provokes the audience to consider the cost of political action and, even more importantly, inaction.
Boyd Gaines is a ball of uncontainable energy as Thomas Stockmann, a doctor in a small coastal town in Norway. When he discovers that the water in the local baths is contaminated, Stockmann blazes a trail to publish his scientific report and advocate for changes to improve water quality. The working class heartily supports these improved conditions – until Stockmann’s aristocratic brother Peter (a staunch Richard Thomas) observes that the local economy would tank during the years it would take to implement these changes. Is it better to uphold a lie than confront the truth? Is it better to take the easy way out by maintaining the status quo, or to challenge the system?
No matter how much publishing assistant Billing (the always excellent James Waterstone) advocates for restraint throughout the play, this production barrels forward with relentless, heightened fervor. Doug Hughes’ direction sets the stage for impassioned debate from the moment Gaines enters stage, tossing off his shoes and rattling off hundreds of words a minute. Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new adaptation is streamlined and incisive, with several speeches that seem stolen from the pages of a current political campaign.
Unfortunately, these arguments often play at a single high-octane level, failing to find nuance in Ibsen’s carefully calculated words. Even Boyd Gaines’ compelling town hall speech in Act II is awkwardly supplemented by raucous crowd sounds, which undermine his performance and pull the audience out of the moment. Thankfully, the solid supporting cast occasionally offers a respite from the fever pitch; Stockmann’s strong and supportive wife, played by the lovely Kathleen McNenny, particularly helps to ground the play.
John Lee Beatty’s rotating set is stunning, if at times a bit shadowy; Catherine Zuber’s period costumes sweep through the space; and David Va Tieghem’s pulsing music gives transitions the feel of an episode of Law and Order. Indeed, An Enemy of the People is rendered as a compact, contemporary political drama in this MTC production. The format may lack subtlety, but it nonetheless makes for an undeniably fresh and engaging production.
photos by Joan Marcus
An Enemy of the People
Manhattan Theatre Club at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in New York City
scheduled to end on November 11, 2012
for tickets, call 800-432-7780 or visit here