Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 27, 2012
An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen. A new version by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Directed by Doug Hughes. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Ben Stanton. Original music & sound design by David van Tieghem. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Fight Director J. David Brimmer. Cast: Boyd Gaines, Richard Thomas, Maïté Alina, Gerry Bamman, Kathleen McNenny, Randall Newsome, John Procaccino, Michael Siberry, James Waterston, Mike Boland, Victoria Frings, Andrew Hovelson, John Robert Tillotson, Ray Virta.
Were this not precisely what the play itself argues against, it might be easier to accept. But a two-hour lecture — and that's the extent of how this production plays — that ignores its own warnings for indefinable reasons is unlikely to be enjoyable, even if you agree with the underlying premise. Such is the case here: Nothing ever exactly grates, but there's not a drop of profundity to be found. And some completely "brash" and "in your face," quotation marks and all, is the action that it ultimately strikes you as intentional.
Perhaps it's merely the acrimony surrounding an unusually intense election season in this country, with tensions and tempers running high on both sides of the political aisle. But little about this mounting possesses the depth necessary to make this evening meaningful rather than heavy-handed. Hughes and his cast, which is led by Broadway stalwarts Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas, spend so much of their time making Points that they don't have enough to bother transporting, castigating, and informing you as well.
That's a bit surprising for this play, which is still capable of generating some edge-of-your-seat chills. Its central question, whether Doctor Thomas Stockmann (Gaines) will succeed in his crusade against his mayor-brother Peter (Thomas) to shut the baths that are the main attraction of the resort town in which he lives because their water is dangerously contaminated, remains a potent one. And as Peter systematically ruins Thomas's life to protect his own career and preserve the town's image of itself, you can feel all too intensely the complicated rage of fighting against seemingly unbeatable odds.
Yet except for the scene in which Thomas confronts Peter about the baths' unsuitability, with each brother struggling to maintain public propriety while becoming increasingly enraged at the other's indifference to his plight, identifiable heat rarely escapes the stage. Thomas's concern is largely bereft of intimacy and passion, and the other townsfolk Peter brings in to shore up his case, who include the populist newspaper editor Hovstad (John Procaccino) and the local printer Aslaksen (Gerry Bamman), are presented as so insufferable that you never believe, as you at least temporarily should, that their motives are as pure as they so frequently claim.
Thomas's home life, on the other hand, is presented with pristine emotional clarity that gives us part of the anchor we need. It's richly embodied by the excellent Kathleen McNenny as Thomas's wife, Maïté Alina as his daughter, and Randall Newsome as the kindly captain who's unwilling to abandon them in their hour of need — in all three cases, the performers chart their characterizations along the usual but effective lines of passing through doubt and disbelief to arrive eventually at honor. They captivate you because you recognize in them how those in the real world think and behave.
Otherwise, the sitcom-styled directing and acting renders the complex script into, at its best, a flimsy intellectual tirade that never sparks into a compelling probe into self-lacerating groupthink the way you hope it will. Hughes's staging is perfunctory, effective but unimaginative as it leads us down the road of the story, with John Lee Beatty's passionless set, Catherine Zuber's bland costumes, and Ben Stanton's lights at best adequate.
The lead performances aren't much better. Neither Gaines nor Thomas is miscast, but neither actor appears especially interested in fashioning a fresh personality. Gaines's avuncular charm plays as it always does, but without a slightly more manic gleam behind his eyes, it's not appreciably different from his most recent Broadway turns in The Columnist (at this same theater this past spring), Driving Miss Daisy, or Gypsy. And Thomas's natural air of sniffy condescension provides a fitting contrast to some roles, but it stacks the annoyance deck so easily here, he might as well grow a mustache so he can start twirling it.
I am, however, tempted to give most involved the benefit of the doubt, given the foundation they're working from. Rebecca Lenkiewicz's "new version" of the script encourages all this behavior and more, stripping Ibsen of most of his poetry and weight and replacing them with vapid, contemporary-sounding declamations that most of the time reduce Thomas and Peter's troubles to hues of solid black and white. It's one thing to buff up the dialogue a bit for modern ears, it's another to rob it of the qualities that make it worth listening to in the present (something that audiences and producers alike should have learned from Roundabout's similarly immature Hedda Gabler in 2009).
When An Enemy of the People works, it's because more timeless truths, about individual and societal behavior alike, seep through the artifice encasing them and force you to pay attention. McNenny and Alina are particularly good about allowing for those lapses and taking full advantage of them; it's during their scenes that you seem to be seeing the complicated, shaded play Ibsen intended, that so oscillates between funny and serious it's impossible to know which is supposed to be prevalent. The rest of the time, you feel the one thing you're not supposed to: nothing at all.