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Thanks for the Warning. Now Shut Up.

Published in the New York Times on September 27, 2012


“Every single exclamation mark stays,” says the riled-up Dr. Thomas Stockmann in the new Broadway staging of “An Enemy of the People,” Ibsen’s 1882 drama about a man’s lonely battle for truth against the arrayed forces of a society bent on self-protection. “If in doubt,” he continues, “add more.”
The good doctor’s fiery admonition might stand as the epigraph for this high-intensity, high-volume production, which opened on Thursday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, presented by Manhattan Theater Club. As directed by Doug Hughes, with a fervent Boyd Gaines in the role of the embattled Dr. Stockmann and a silky-sinister Richard Thomas as his brother and staunch foe, Ibsen’s potent play reaches a rapid boil in the seething confrontation between the brothers that concludes the first act. It rarely simmers down for the rest of the evening.
The pedal-to-the-metal approach has its advantages. With voices clamoring from the stage at top volume for much of the evening, your attention is rarely likely to stray from the finely spun web of ideas animating Ibsen’s play, about the ruckus raised in a Norwegian spa town when the local doctor discovers that the waters are poisoned. At a time when America’s political discourse is reaching fever pitch in advance of the presidential election, the play’s heated discussion of just who should control the levers of power in a society, and whether the intellectually superior, forward-thinking individual or the mindless majority should dictate public policy, makes for savory meat to chew on after the curtain has fallen.
While the shouting sometimes threatens to leave the actors nowhere to go but to a skilled ear, nose and throat doctor, it’s also true that Ibsen’s play is hardly his most nuanced drama of an individual at odds with the social order of his time. “An Enemy of the People” lends itself to inflammatory theatrics, particularly in the climactic scene in which poor Dr. Stockmann is assailed by a chorus of townspeople viciously taunting him with the epithet of the title. This rousing set-to would fall pretty flat if voices were not raised beyond a gentle murmur.
It’s gratifying to see Mr. Gaines, a Broadway veteran with four Tony awards to his name (for “The Heidi Chronicles,” “She Loves Me,” “Contact” and “Gypsy”) get the opportunity to dig into such a rewarding classical role. (Dr. Stockmann was a favorite part of no less a theater god than Stanislavsky.) Productions of Ibsen are rare on Broadway, where the approved list of revivals seems to be shrinking down to a handful of market-tested, star-spangled 20th-century American classics.
Mr. Gaines takes confident advantage of this prized chance, giving a sterling performance that allows us to see Dr. Stockmann from all the perspectives Ibsen intended. A once-struggling doctor who now freely rejoices in the financial rewards that his status as the staff physician at the spa have brought, he brims with good will in the play’s opening scenes. Mr. Gaines scampers around the stage with almost boyish high spirits, in amusing contrast to the prim, buttoned-up rectitude of the brother, Peter (Mr. Thomas), the town’s mayor and the chairman of the spa that promises to bring untold trickle-down prosperity to the citizenry.
The brothers part ways violently when Thomas reveals that he has conducted a series of tests that prove his grave suspicion: Far from being salubrious, the town’s spa waters are actually harmful, thanks to the decision taken by its leaders (namely Peter) to go against Thomas’s recommendation about where to lay the pipes.
Thomas is galvanized by the discovery, at first assured that he will be hailed as the town’s hero when his report is published in the newspaper, with all those exclamation points in place. But even as he preens, he is driven above all by the belief that the truth must be brought forth: for him the public good and right conduct dictated by reason are indistinguishable. Mr. Gaines’s forceful performance makes us see how deeply held these beliefs are, and how shaken he is by the discovery that his view puts him in a lonely minority of one.
“An Enemy of the People,” presented here in a clear translation by Rebecca Lenkiewicz occasionally dotted by British-isms, does not rank among Ibsen’s most subtly drawn or evenly textured plays. The smoothness with which Ibsen embodied theme through character and incident in his greatest plays is absent here. Dr. Stockmann is really its only fully rounded, complicated character.
His brother, the pragmatic Peter, offers Mr. Thomas a chance to play a single-minded villain with elegant authority. Peter’s unruffled imperiousness only falters in the tense face-off that closes the first act, and is perhaps the production’s highlight, as we watch how long-festering sibling rivalry and firmly opposed worldviews bring the brothers almost to blows.
But the numerous ancillary characters are thinly conceived and at times crudely manipulated by Ibsen to achieve his dramatic ends. There are excellent performances from John Procaccino, as the newspaper publisher Hovstad; Gerry Bamman, as the printer Aslaksen; and Michael Siberry, as Dr. Stockmann’s father-in-law, Morten Kiil. Yet their transition from staunch supporters of Dr. Stockmann to angry opponents is abrupt to the point of dramatic contrivance. Ibsen makes glaringly clear how these men are driven almost solely by personal interests, in stark opposition to Dr. Stockmann, who insists on standing by his principles even if it means his beloved wife (the warm Kathleen McNenny) and children will be driven to destitution.
In the play’s climactic scene, he is denounced by the townspeople he looked to for support, and denounces them right back. Mr. Gaines delivers great gusts of rhetoric — “The most dangerous public enemy is the majority!” “Over the centuries what were truths reconfigure as lies.” — with a blistering sense of outrage. Looking beyond the sometimes creaking dramaturgy, it is startling to discover how current the play’s ideas can feel. At a time when American politicians are regularly accused of following the polls or kowtowing to self-interested factions instead of taking stands driven by their own beliefs — if indeed they can be proven to have any — Dr. Stockmann’s unbending morals and his contempt for the unthinking majority can seem both radical and invigorating.
That said, I hasten to add that the last thing the country’s political discourse needs is another boatload of exclamation points.

An Enemy of the People
By Henrik Ibsen; new version by Rebecca Lenkiewicz; directed by Doug Hughes; sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Catherine Zuber; lighting by Ben Stanton; music and sound by David Van Tieghem; hair and wig design by Tom Watson; fight director, J. David Brimmer; production stage manager, Winnie Y. Lok; artistic producer, Mandy Greenfield; general manager, Florie Seery; production manager, Joshua Helman. Presented by the Manhattan Theater Club, Lynne Meadow, artistic director; Barry Grove, executive producer. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 West 47th Street, Manhattan, (212) 239-6200,, Through Nov. 11. Running time: two hours.
WITH: Boyd Gaines (Dr. Thomas Stockmann), Richard Thomas (Peter Stockmann), Maïté Alina (Petra Stockmann), Gerry Bamman (Aslaksen), Kathleen McNenny (Catherine Stockmann), Randall Newsome (Captain Horster), John Procaccino (Hovstad), Michael Siberry (Morten Kiil), James Waterston (Billing), John Robert Tillotson (the Drunk) and Mike Boland, Victoria Frings, Andrew Hovelson and Ray Virta (Townspeople).


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