Lacking familiarity with an unabridged, unadorned English translations or other adaptations (say, the one by Arthur Miller) to have by way of comparison—a familiarity I do indeed lack (for now)—it’s impossible to say where the fault lies in director Doug Hughes’ new production of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (produced on Broadway by the Manhattan Theatre Club). Is it with Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new, slightly British-accented English version; is it with the selection of internal cuts made to the unabridged script? Is it with the tone and style of the acting (arguably tones and styles, but more on that later)? Or is it with the source play?
Here’s what I can tell you: the story takes place in a coastal town in Southern Norway and revolves around Dr. Thomas Stockman, a scientist who had a rough number of years trying to provide for his family elsewhere, but is now, for him, prosperous enough as the town doctor, servicing the mineral baths that are the town’s significant tourist draw. In the person of Boyd Gaines, Stockmann starts out as a driven, focused and yet delightfully enthusiastic eccentric. When we meet him, though, it is on the day when he gets official, scientific confirmation (from the nearby university lab) of a theory he has held; that the waters of the baths are contaminated by local industry waste, and a threat to the very lives of the tourists they attract. It validates what he said from the beginning about where the pipes had been laid, but he has a plan for rebuilding and re-routing, which he presents to his brother Peter, the town Mayor (Richard Thomas in a smoothly withheld portrayal of a man favoring image over authenticity). Unfortunately (and of course) correcting the problem would put the town in serious financial jeopardy (or worse), and so brother Peter threatens to “spin” the info against brother Thomas—which would put the all-too-recently re-established well-being of Thomas and his family in jeopardy—professing to not even fully believe its veracity.
And there you have it; Ibsen dramatizing how a clear-cut truth with no ambiguity can be distortively used as cannon fodder by an uncaring opposition. And up through that confrontation between the brothers, the production at the Samuel J. Friedman theatre crackles excitingly with familiar but currently resonant ideas. Come the second act, though, the doctor’s former allies lose either their nerve or their convictions or their consciences with so little preparation that it’s hard to believe their behavior; the doctor’s own protestations become more vehement and muddled, bringing in the irrelevant ego-issue of genius (his) vs. mediocrity (everybody else’s); and the playing style goes further out of whack. In Act One the differences between Gaines’ layered, sweetly funny doctor, Thomas’s soberly staunch Mayor and others like John Procaccino (wry and naturalistic as the newspaper editor), James Waterston (given to loud sloganeering as the newspaper’s business manager) and Gerry Bamman (a satiric comment on avuncular “moderation”) just about hold together as being of a piece, in keeping with Ibsen’s tendency to use characters as symbols; but in Act Two, the different approaches are necessarily magnified and the universe escalates into something more of toon than town, and the madness of the majority loses its power to stir the viewer’s soul, as good agit-prop theatre ultimately must. Is it a vision gone wrong? Is it an attempt to impose vision that is ultimately doomed by flawed material. All that’s certain is that, despite a cleanness of production, a chaos of meaning ensues.
At which point it becomes difficult to know who the enemy of The Enemy of the People really is…
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