The Citiblog

Review: An Enemy of the People Can Be Strong Medicine
March 23, 2024, 11:30.20 am ET


By Brian Scott Lipton

The dangers of environmental recklessness. The superiority of the rich and the resentment of the poor and the immigrant. The ease with which “fake news” can be spread. The treatment of women as second-class citizens.

Indeed, there are so many contemporary parallels strewn through Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” it’s sometimes hard to believe while watching and listening to this modernized revival at Circle on the Square -- adapted by the great Amy Herzog and directed with customary quirkiness by her husband, Sam Gold -- that the play (which is mostly intact) was written way back in 1882.

More pungent, even, is the timeless morale of Ibsen’s morality play: People (well, most people) are driven primarily by self-interest, the need for popularity, and greed. To be exempt from these traits – as is the play’s protagonist, Dr. Thomas Stockmann (“Succession” star Jeremy Strong in a welcome return to his stage roots) – can literally be cause for you to be branded “an enemy of the people.”

Indeed, that’s exactly what happens to Stockmann – a man who, especially in Strong’s mostly understated portrayal, sees everything in black and white, sticks to the facts, and seems completely unaware of the realities of the world. He can’t wait to announce that he has proof that the water supplying the town’s baths and soon-to-open resort, for which he is the medical director, is contaminated and therefore requires a new sewage system that will shut down the facility for two years to avoid any unnecessary illness or death.

His discovery is instantly lauded by the people closest to him: his independent-minded schoolteacher daughter Petra (an excellent Victoria Perdetti), local newspapermen Hovstad (Caleb Everhardt) and Billing (Matthew August Jeffers), sea captain Horster (Alan Trong) and printer and property owner leader Aslaksen (Thomas Jay Ryan in particularly fine form). He is even hailed as a “servant" of the people.

Until, of course, the true “servant: of the people, the town’s mayor and Thomas’ obsequious brother Peter (an excellent Michael Imperioli, less villainous than expected but never particularly likeable), gets hold of the news. Fearing the town’s economy will completely collapse if the baths are shut down, he resorts to every means possible to stop his brother’s influence, from insisting the townspeople will have to pay for repairs to halting the publication of the damaging report in the town newspaper, and ultimately trying to stop Thomas from presenting his report at a town hall meeting, which results in some expected (if not life-threating) violence.

To Gold’s credit, the production – which comes in at a brisk two hours with a brief (and slightly bizarre) pause – is neither as polemical nor bombastic as it could be, although I also feel his approach robs the play of some of its natural power. Further, a “pause” in which a working bar is placed on dots’ clever, minimalistic set – and patrons are encouraged to line up for free shots of Aquavit – completely halts the flow of Herzog’s script. This is the rare time a truly intermissionless play would have been a good idea.

Still, it’s a blessing that many of the supporting actors have been encouraged to find the humor in their lines, as if Ibsen had written a Chekovian tragicomedy. He’s also allowed the wonderful David Patrick Kelly to deliver a deliciously eccentric performance as Thomas’ father-in-law Morten Kiil, a tannery owner who is unintentionally responsible for the polluted town waters (although in this version, his daughter – and Stockmann’s wife – Katherine has passed away) and who ends up as the play’s most despicable character.

Indeed, while the merch at Circle at the Square includes activist Greta Thunberg’s book, the one thing I didn’t see – which I would have purchased – is the t-shirt that says “the more I know people, the more I like dogs.”

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