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Ibsen's 'An Enemy of the People' gets timely revival
Posted 9/27/2012 10:07 PM ET

NEW YORK -- How far would you go to defend an unpopular truth? It's a timely question in an election season; and suffice it to say that Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the hero of An Enemy of the People, would make a pretty lame politician.

Henrik Ibsen's 1882 study of courage and its consequences spins a tale of two very different men: the physician and his brother, Peter, who happens to be mayor of their coastal Norwegian town. Where truthful Thomas risks his personal and professional standing to reveal a health hazard threatening the community, Peter is more concerned with his grasp on power than his constituents' well-being --or Thomas', for that matter.

But in the new version of Enemy(* * * out of four) that opened Thursday at Broadway's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, the siblings can hardly be written off as opposing forces of darkness and light. British dramatist Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who first adapted the play for London's Arcola Theatre, takes care to make Thomas fully, frustratingly human -- a tricky task, given that the character is widely thought to represent Ibsen himself.

Though conceived before Ghosts, Ibsen's provocative indictment of Victorian moral hypocrisy, Enemy has been interpreted as in part a response to the scandal created by the former play. Just as Ibsen faced public and critical scorn, Thomas is confronted with angry townspeople and betrayed by journalists, both groups egged on by Peter and his minions; and he can only conclude that the masses are malleable and unreasonable.

If Lenkiewicz's blunt, sometimes crass choices sap Ibsen's language of some of its seductive lyricism, she and director Doug Hughes also mitigate Enemy's pedantic leanings by emphasizing the haughtiness that mingles uncomfortably with Thomas' virtue. At one point, he declares himself not just a member of a rational, intelligent minority but a "genius" among "idiots."

This Manhattan Theatre Club production also has a huge asset in leading man Boyd Gaines, whose Thomas is a distinctly earthbound but still mesmerizing force of nature -- by turns formidable, frail, frazzled, funny and tragic. Gaines captures all the arrogance and compassion of a man devoted to a noble but impossible cause, letting us see both the wisdom in his words and their futility.

The actor has a worthy foil in fellow stage stalwart Richard Thomas, whose Peter is at once convincingly petty and paranoid and smooth enough to be an authentic player. The supporting cast is mostly excellent, particularly John Procaccino as a jaded editor and Gerry Bamman as his cynical printer.

Hughes cannily pokes through the fourth wall in Enemy's climactic crowd scene, having ensemble members cast as hoi polloi cheer and jeer characters' conflicting perspectives from orchestra seats. It's about as credible as anything you're likely to see in the upcoming presidential debates, and likely more entertaining.

Posted 9/27/2012 10:07 PM ET
Richard Thomas stars as Mayor Peter Stockmann in 'An Enemy of the People,' playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
By Joan Marcus
Richard Thomas stars as Mayor Peter Stockmann in 'An Enemy of the People,' playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

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