Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

An Enemy of the People

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 18, 2024

An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen. New version by Amy Herzog. Directed by Sam Gold. Scenic design by dots. Costume design by David Zinn. Lighting design by Isabella Byrd. Sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman. Hair and wig design by Campbell Young Associates. Voice coach Kate Wilson. Fight director Thomas Schall.
Cast: Michael Imperioli, Katie Broad, Bill Buell, Caleb Eberhardt, Matthew August Jeffers, David Patrick Kelly, David Mattar Merten, Victoria Pedretti, Max Roll, Thomas Jay Ryan, and Alan Trong.
Theater: Circle in the Square

Michael Imperioli
Photo by Emilio Madrid
Two middle-aged brothers with a long history of sibling rivalry vie for power in playwright Amy Herzog's sometimes staid, sometimes incendiary reconceptualization of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, which opened tonight in a star-powered production at Circle in the Square.

With An Enemy of the People, Herzog does what she accomplished in last year's rewrite of Ibsen's A Doll's House, which is to distill the play to its essence while setting up modern connections for today's audiences. That she and director Sam Gold are a married couple make this a most interesting collaboration, what with Herzog's careful reworking of the original 1882 play and Gold's propensity for employing offbeat, at times outlandish approaches to classic works as he has done with Hamlet and Macbeth. One can imagine some very interesting conversations over dinner.

There is some of that Gold bombast here, though you will have to wait until the start of Act II to get to it (Ibsen's five acts have been smooshed into two, and there is no designated intermission, though there is a most interesting interlude to mark the passage between acts). Act I is pretty straightforward, even somewhat stiff, as we are introduced to the players and the situation in which we learn that livelihoods and even lives are at stake for everyone in the Norwegian town where the play unfolds. We also get to watch two big-name actors (Michael Imperioli dressed in black, and Jeremy Strong dressed in tan) face off with their opening jabs and feints.

In one corner is Peter Stockmann (Imperioli), the self-important mayor of the town. Other than garnering the support of the wealthy if fickle landowners, he sees himself as being single-handedly responsible for moving the town into an age of prosperity, thanks to the construction of a municipal baths and health resort. In the other corner is his brother Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Strong), who is the medical director of the baths but who has learned a most discomfiting piece of information, namely that the water feeding the fledgling tourist attraction is laden with disease-causing bacteria.

Jeremy Strong
Photo by Emilio Madrid
And so the battle royale is put into motion. Thomas wants to shout out to the rooftops that the baths must be shut down and the pipes relocated, whatever the cost. Peter wants it all hushed up, whatever the price. Who is the more savvy, the more persuasive, the better able to gauge what it is that will shape the malleable public opinion? That is the essence of An Enemy of the People: politics then as politics now.

You may have heard that just a few days ago, a small group of climate change activists disrupted the opening scene of Act II before being escorted from the theater. The moment of protest was perfectly timed to the play's town square meeting, during which the house lights are up and the entire audience becomes part of the crowd. And while climate change is not the topic of the play, the production is filled with the kind of fiery and provocative speech you will likely encounter at any sort of heated rally these days.

Plus ça change, as the French and probably Herzog would say. She clears the path in a way that allows us to readily imagine an exchange of fights over sullied baths for battles over lead-poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, for marches that pit pro-life against pro-choice advocates, for competing rallies in support of Palestinians or Israelis. Or, yes, even for climate change protests against the petroleum industry. This is what the Herzog-Gold collaboration manages to do most effectively in the second half of the play.

Not difficult as well to recognize the political head-butting, as in, say, a neck-and-neck national election, in which one of these men, Peter or Thomas, will win the support of their fellow citizens. Truth be told, both brothers think little of the common folk whose backing they need, though only one of them is foolish enough to air his disdain aloud.

While the battle of the brothers is the key conflict in An Enemy of the People, this is not a two-person play. Herzog has dropped a couple of characters (RIP Thomas's killed-off wife, whose domestic duties are taken up by their daughter Petra, a feminist-in-the-making well played by Victoria Pedretti). But most are on hand, with excellent performances as well by Caleb Eberhardt as the left-leaning if pliable editor of "The People's Messenger"; by Thomas Jay Ryan as the chair of the Property Owners' Association; and by David Patrick Kelly as Thomas's father-in-law, who finds the whole "bacteria" story to be a hilarious fiction until Thomas talks about his tannery as a source of deadly pollution.

For the production, the versatile performance space that is Circle in the Square is set up as a true theater-in-the-round, with a big oblong area running the length and width of the floor. It is an awkward set-up, with actors' backs turned to one part or another of the audience throughout as they move up and down the space. And, perhaps by necessity, there is little by way of a set (by the design collective dots). But the area becomes more inviting during the interval between acts when the company offers up lively musical performances and an invitation to join in for drinks. (If you are nimble on your feet, there's probably just enough time to hit the bathroom before the real brouhaha commences).

Some might argue that Herzog, who has been referred to as an "Ibsen whisperer," has watered down the play or made it too black and white (or, in this case, the black and tan of David Zinn's costumes) in laying out its central conflict, whereas Ibsen painted more in shades of gray. But by stripping it of some of its complexity, the play resonates for our time while, with the match-off between its stars, the production itself gives us two exciting performances at its core.