Sunday, September 30, 2012

An Enemy of the People (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

“Shitty, shitty, shitty.”

No, that’s not my blunt assessment of the revival of Henrik Ibsen’s classic tale of a spa physician who tries to warn the townspeople that the waters that give the town its livelihood are toxic, only to have them revile him for it. But, truth to tell, this is, in fact, the least effective production of the work I’ve seen on either side of the Atlantic or on screen.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s pared-down, overly colloquial adaptation – which includes the un-Ibsen like exclamation quoted above – is largely to blame. Though the production is touted in promotional materials as being “often surprisingly humorous,” that approach seems to me the very problem, with much of the action played in broad sitcom style.

That tact is underscored by Doug Hughes’ direction, and some of the performances, most egregiously, Gerry Bamman as the local newspaper’s printer who is first on the doctor’s side, and then, like the paper’s editor (John Procaccino) and chief reporter (James Waterston) not, and Michael Siberry as the doctor’s crusty foster father-in-law.

As Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the always reliable Boyd Gaines morphs from endearingly enthusiastic idealist and collegial member of the community to radical defender of a more elitist and informed minority view.

The doctor at first believes he’ll be hailed as a hero for revealing the truth about the poisoned waters, but when that proves emphatically not the case, he finds himself at loggerheads with his opportunistic brother (Richard Thomas in strictly stock villain mode as black-outfitted mayor Peter Stockmann). Ultimately, he lambasts the townspeople whose majority opinion, based on outdated notions and self-interest, he comes to disparage with almost joyful vehemence.

Apart from Gaines, Kathleen McNenny as Thomas’s wife, Maïté Alina as his independent-minded daughter, and Randall Newsome as the sea captain who sticks by the family when things get rough, the performances lack texture.

John Lee Beatty’s Nordic-styled set, Catherine Zuber’s period costumes, and Ben Stanton’s apt lighting are all proficient, but the production overall trivializes a great play.

(Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, 212-239-6200 or; through November 11)
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