Review: With Jeremy Strong, ‘An Enemy of the People’ Is Still Making Trouble


Dissent is necessary to democracy, sure. But how much does it cost?

That’s the fundamental question posed by Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” — and, in highly dramatic fashion, by the preview I attended of its latest Broadway revival.

At that performance, on Thursday, just as the play reached its climax in a raucous town meeting — and as Jeremy Strong, as the town’s crusading doctor, was trying to warn his community about an environmental disaster — members of a climate protest group secreted in the audience at Circle in the Square interrupted the action with dissent of their own.

What exactly were they dissenting from?

Surely not the Ibsen, which aligns closely with their views and is a distant source of them. (The play was first performed, as “En Folkefiende,” in 1883.) Nor does it make sense that they would object to Sam Gold’s crackling and persuasive production, which drove those views home despite having to regroup once the protesters were ejected.

After all, “An Enemy of the People,” adapted and sharpened by the playwright Amy Herzog, and starring Strong as Dr. Thomas Stockmann, is a protest already: a bitter satire of local politics that soon reveals itself as a slow-boil tragedy of human complacency.

How the satire becomes the tragedy is central to the power of Ibsen’s dramatic construction, overriding its occasional plot contrivances. To emphasize the transition, Gold begins with the warmth of gaslight and candlelight camaraderie. (The superb and varied lighting is by Isabella Byrd.) Dr. Stockmann’s home (by the design collective called dots) looks like a low-walled barge on smooth water, decorated with Norwegian blue-plate patterns. Before anyone speaks, a folk song is sung and a maid sleeps at her sewing.

With modesty and steadiness as the givens of this world, the doctor naturally does not expect to be heralded as a hero when he determines that the water supply to the town’s new spa is polluted with potentially fatal pathogens. But he does expect to be heeded.

At first, he is, at least by those who today might be labeled a progressive coterie: his daughter, Petra (Victoria Pedretti), a schoolteacher; Hovstad (Caleb Eberhardt), the editor of a newspaper that plans to publish the findings; Hovstad’s dandyish assistant, Billing (Matthew August Jeffers); and, more provisionally, Aslaksen (Thomas Jay Ryan), the newspaper’s printer.

Because this is Ibsen, the thematic complication comes in an overdetermined package. Aslaksen is also the chairman of the property owners’ association: “fanatical about moderation,” in Herzog’s pithy formulation. Hovstad is hoping to marry Petra. And the doctor’s chief antagonist is his brother, Peter, who also happens to be the mayor.

Brought to hilariously despicable life by Michael Imperioli, Peter is a stuffed shirt more interested in the sanctity of his “official hat” (a perfectly buffoonish creation by the costume designer David Zinn) than in the safety of his fellow citizens. When he learns that remediating the contamination will cost the spa’s wealthy shareholders a fortune, while shutting down the facility for several years just as it is about to welcome huge crowds, he suggests that his brother conveniently recant his findings.

From there, the play becomes a kind of crucifixion, as the doctor’s supporters peel away, each for his own seemingly reasonable reason. Peter foresees economic collapse. Aslaksen is scandalized by the likelihood of higher taxes. Hovstad, born poor, knows all too well who will be unemployed by the shutdown and forced to make good on the losses of the rich. Soon enough the progressive coterie is a reactionary mob, everyone having bitten off a discrete morsel of complaint until nothing is left to defend.

It’s too weak to say that this conspiracy of inaction makes “An Enemy of the People” relevant; its issues and ours are not similar but identical. And not just its issues. Its characters, too, are contemporary: doppelgängers of our own vicious demagogues, cowed editors, greasy both-sides-ists and defanged idealists. More than once, I thought Strong must have modeled his spectacularly accurate yet non-showy performance on Dr. Anthony Fauci, the embattled former infectious disease expert, including not just his messianic faith in science but also his barely mastered disdain, social weirdness and haircut.

Everyone in the uniformly excellent cast is complicated in that way: just wobbly enough, even in their bonhomie, to make credible the quick transformations to bad faith. The few who do not make that transformation are all the more touching for the quirks that make their good faith costly.

Of course, it wouldn’t matter how real these characters seemed in essence if they spoke like 19th-century vicars. Herzog’s clean but not noticeably modern phrasings hit just the right note. (Petra’s roast beef now “tastes great” — not “uncommonly good” as the first English translation has it.) The other alterations feel just as justified, even killing off the doctor’s wife, who had no agency, and combining her with Petra, who now has plenty. Poking fun at the doctor’s ambient sexism and largely eliminating his icky detour into eugenics are likewise improvements, as is an overall trim that reduces the playing time of the five-act play to barely two hours.

Or it would have been barely two hours on Thursday were it not for the protest. The group that took credit, Extinction Rebellion NYC, had clearly done its homework, understanding that many journalists would be on hand for the first press performance (ahead of opening night on Monday) and crafting its intervention for maximum theatricality.

Their timing, just after a pause between acts that included a surprise pop-up activation onstage, was exquisite. As part of Gold’s concept, some members of the audience who were already milling about on the set remained to “attend” the town meeting that followed. Because the house lights were deliberately left on to emphasize that mix of cast and audience — as well as the interpenetration of past and present, fiction and reality — I was certain the protest that immediately ensued was part of the show.

Certainly apt were the protesters’ costumes (statement T-shirts) and catchphrases (“No theater on a dead planet”). The cast’s ad libs in response were also on point. Still in character, Strong more than once nodded approval, saying something like, “Let the man speak.” David Patrick Kelly, as one of his antagonists, shouted, “Write your own play!”

If this had really been devised by Gold and Herzog it would have been brilliant, completing the linkage of the play’s concerns to ours, and implicating us, fairly or not, as part of the problem being dramatized onstage.

But it does not follow that, scripted instead by Extinction Rebellion, the intervention was valid or even made sense. Outshouting the doctor, the protesters seemed to be part of the reactionary mob attacking him, not like-minded citizens protecting him and underlining his warning. Even leaving aside the disregard for the actors and crew, the message, in retrospect, began to seem self-canceling.

A spokesman for the group, which previously staged actions at the Metropolitan Opera and the U.S. Open, told The Times it devises its protests to “disrupt the things that we love.” An odd way to show love! I can’t speak for the tenors or tennis players but I’m pretty sure Ibsen would have noted — indeed, he dramatizes it in this very play — that in disrupting work that champions a common cause, people who mean to do good risk making enemies of the wrong people.

An Enemy of the People
Through June 16 at Circle in the Square, Manhattan; anenemyofthepeopleplay.com. Running time: 2 hours.



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