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An Enemy of The People
By Elyse Sommer
Case in point: The 2003 Williamstown Theatre production of expert translator Christopher Hampton's version. Mandy Patinkin brought plenty of fire to the role of the idealistic Thomas Stockmann who refuses to compromise about dealing with what he considers to be a dire medical emergency that demands immediate fixing, even if it means lost business and increased taxes for his fellow citizens. But the 3-hour run time tested even the most ardent Ibsen and Patinkin fans' sitzfleisch. (review). On the other hand, streamlining the father of modern drama's five acts to be more palatable to audiences accustomed to ninety minute plays without even one intermissions, is bound to raise the hackles of purists. But that's not why the Off-Off Broadway Barrow Street's brave, trimmed down version failed, It stumbled because of a misconceived framing device and so-so performances. (review).
That brings us to the revival now playing at Manhattan Theater Club's Broadway home. I'm pleased to report that this production has successfully brought the 1882 muckraking drama into the 21st Century. Opening on the heels of two new plays ( Detroit and If there Is I Haven't Found It Yet about the dysfunction in our present day society, this An Enemy of the People is the hands-down winner in terms of first-rate, timely theater.
Using British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz's adaptation, director Doug Hughes has managed to tease out the comic elements theater goers don't usually associate with Ibsen, without sacrificing its serious social issues. Naturally, it takes actors who can give special meaning to a word with a look or a pause to achieve this balance, as every member of this refreshingly large cast does. Boyd Gaines as the uncompromising protagonist (Ibsen's stand-in) and Richard Thomas as the conservative, Mayor imbue their battle over dealing with the polluted spa waters with the pain of an irreconcilable sibling rift with roots going back to their childhood. Unlike the previously mentioned contemporary issue plays, neither of which has a hero, Gaines' Dr. Stockmann is a heroic figure — a cross between The Crucible's John Proctor and The Man of All Seasons' Thomas More. But Stockmann is hardly a flawless hero. He's arrogant and too naive to deal more diplomatically with his fellow citizens' concerns. His relationship with his wife is warm, and in this production appears to be sexually satisfying, but he is not above sexism, as when he tells his wife "You take care of the house and I’ll take care of society. For all the good doctor's tunnel vision heroism, Boyd's Stockmann never alienates the audience. That leaves it to Richard Thomas to take on the villain's role as the less flamboyant, uptight but ruthlessly determined Mayor, and he does so with finely nuanced understatement.
Chief among the ensemble's standouts, are two of Stockmann's chief admirers whose pragmatism quickly turns them into fair weather friends: Horstad (a most impressive John Procaccino) the liberal minded newspaper editor whose liberal ideas are challenged by the need to please his readers; and Aslaksen (the always reliable, Gerry Bamman epitomizing smarminess) as his printer who also happens to be the head of the homeowner's association. In his long leather coat the good looking editor might well succeed in making the doctor's daughter Petra (MattéAlina making her Broadway debut) more than a friend if she weren't as stubbornly high-minded as her father and repelled by his willingness to turn the back section of his paper over to readers with decidedly lowbrow tastes.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz's adaptation strips the text to a crisp two hours (including the intermission) without losing the drama's power. Her dialogue sounds contemporary with only a few anachronisms that jump out a bit too much (Aslaksen's reference to the baths as a "cash cow" and Hovstadts telling Petra that the readers buy his paper "for the schlock").
John Lee Beatty's ' sliding and turning set handily evokes the various rooms of the Stockmann's home and the newspaper editor's office with its glimpse of the printers at work. The smooth wooden walls projects a part Victorian, part Ikea flavor.
The dramatic high tor of the two hours is the explosive town meeting after the intermission that scarily illustrates the ease with which a crowd can be manipulated. The Stockmann living room is now a room in the apolitical, kindhearted Captain Horster's (Randall Newsome) home, lent to Dr. Stockmann for his appeal to the townspeople. With the table for the speakers facing the audience and a handful of actors (the understudies for the main roles) seated in the front row, everyone in the theater is thus part of the meeting. The use of the aisles adds to this scene's being a true coup-de-theater.
If there's one wish that this thoroughly engaging revival leaves me with it's this: I wish I could see The Enemy of the People without having it bring any number of more recent parallel situations to mind.
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