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HomeBollywood'An Enemy Of The People' Broadway Review: Jeremy Strong, Michael Imperioli

‘An Enemy Of The People’ Broadway Review: Jeremy Strong, Michael Imperioli

Whether or not the climate activists who interrupted a critics preview of Broadway’s An Enemy of the People last week persuasively made their “water’s coming for us all” message isn’t for me to say, but I will note that the disruption spoke very well for this production.

The first, there’s Amy Herzog’s smart, sharp and relevant adaptation of Ibsen’s 1882 classic about a Norwegian town doctor deemed “an enemy of the people” for his truth-telling about an environmental health hazard. The science vs. commerce debate is uncannily current, as Herzog thoughtfully makes clear. Ibsen created an archetypal situation here – I’d be willing to bet a trip to the beach that Peter Benchley was more than a little familiar with Enemy when he created that spineless, shark-denying mayor of Jaws, and if the activists at last week’s show hadn’t already seen a performance of this production, they certainly recognized a kindred spirit (not to mention the perfect scene to disrupt).

And the disruption also pointed up another strength of the production: The cast. Staying in character, going with the flow and tapping into some truly impressive improv skills, and demonstrated their complete grasp not only of their individual characters but of the play and its themes as well. It was nothing less than a privilege to watch cast members Michael Imperioli, Jeremy Strong and David Patrick Kelly stayed so theatrically grounded and invested that many in the audience – myself included – were convinced, at least initially, that the disruption was all part of the plan.

But have no doubt: Audiences on any every night of this limited 16-week run at Circle in the Square will witness a taut and exactingly directed production. Sam Gold’s An Enemy Of The People is one of the best play revivals of the current season to date, right up there with Purlie Victorious, besting Doubt and even Gold’s own, shakier Macbeth starring Daniel Craig in 2022.

Michael Imperioli, ‘An Enemy Of The People’

Emilio Madrid

Opening tonight, Enemy makes the most effective use of Circle in the Square’s in-the-round performance space since Daniel Fish’s novel 2019 reimagining of Oklahoma! (That production invited audience members to join the stage for some intermission chili, Enemy follows suit with aquavit shots. When in Norway…)

Surrounded by the audience is a scenic design by that wildly imaginative collective known as dots (The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Appropriate). The play’s action takes place in a sort of rectangular pen, with lovely white calf-high walls enclosing the actors, almost as if they were performing in one of those shallow newly constructed mineral baths that promise to the town’s rich men richer and provide a steady stream of tourism-related work for the humbler denizens.

But Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Strong), hired by his string-pulling brother, Mayor Peter Stockmann (Imperioli), to serve as the planned resort’s official physician, suddenly has serious reservations. He’s been awaiting some lab reports from tests he conducted months earlier, and when they come his worst suspicions are confirmed: The town’s water system has become so contaminated by bacteria from a nearby tannery – a tannery owned by the father of the doctor’s late wife, no less – that typhoid and other life-threatening diseases are all but guaranteed.

Dr. Stockmann shares the news with a small gathering of friends of his school-teacher daughter (Victoria Pedretti, You, The Haunting of Hill House), a group of young, revolutionary-minded go-getters, including two socialist newspaper journalists and a kind-hearted sailor. Just how deep their devotion runs to Stockmann (and the revolution) is a question that will soon be put to the test, as will there seemingly liberated attitudes toward the value of the doctor’s lovely daughter. With at least a couple of these guys, a devotion to equal rights gives way after a sexual rejection or two.

Victoria Pedretti

Emilio Madrid

With friends like those, the allegory of the tainted water supply as a science-under-threat stand-in for climate change, Covid, vaccines, and other modern controversies is easily grasped, and in less talented hands, the message-conveyance could seem cringy at best, play-killing at worst. But Herzog, as she did recently with Ibsen’s A Doll’s House starring Jessica Chastain, almost magically combines modernisms – both in themes and speech – with period authenticity. David Zinn’s period costumes somehow make a lot of grays, browns and blacks inviting to the eye (only Pedretti’s spirited Petra gets a splash of color, if a rusty maroon can be splashy).

Gold’s coup de theatre comes right before a five- or 10-minute pause where an intermission would normally be. With house lights up and the performance space transformed from a living room or newspaper office to a meeting hall-tavern, complete with fully functional iceboxes branded and stuffed with Linie Aquavit, audience members are invited to leave their seats and have a drink, with some remaining on “stage” to pad out what will be a tension-filled town hall meeting.

With Strong’s insistent (and not just a little self-righteous) doctor trying to be heard over the shouts of his townfolk and brother and back-stabbing friends, the scene turns violent (Strong must have trained with ice baths for an extended sequence when his Stockmann is all but buried in bucket after bucket of very real ice cubes; Mikaal Sulaiman’s expert sound design picks up every crack and ice tinkle).

Jeremy Strong

Emilio Madrid

Among the ugliest moments, though, comes from Dr. Stockmann himself, in an Ibsen speech that Gold and Herzog have opted to leave in (some modern-era revivals ax it). Occasionally referred to as the “mutt” speech, Stockmann, egged on by his former friend the newspaper editor (excellently played by Caleb Eberhardt), is drawn into the subject of who is better to make important decisions for a community – the peasants, which the highly educated Stockmann compares to mutts, or the more academically qualified, the smart poodles, of which Stockmann considers himself top dog.

Having lived through years of the Right’s demeaning of Dr. Fauci as some egg-headed villain, it might be hard for today’s audience to refrain from yelling a well-timed “Go poodles!,” but the scene, both as written by Ibsen, adapted by Herzog and staged by Gold, hints at something deeper than us vs them: the not-so-subtle disregard for democratic principles when the bacteria hits the fan. During the reviewed performance, there had been very obvious audience approval of most of Stockmann’s speech, but that changed fast when Strong broke out the ol’ mutt argument. Eberhardt, in character as the slimy newspaper editor, glanced toward the audience and made a sharp note of the sudden awkward silence.

Katie Broad, David Patrick Kelly & Victoria Pedretti

Emilio Madrid

It was during the vociferous town hall meeting that the real-life activists chose to make their uninvited appearances, and it should be noted that the rest of the post-pause second act recovered remarkably well, with the cast missing no beats in continuing through the end.

Watching Strong (Succession) and Imperioli (The Sopranos) go head to head for two hours is a treat, as if the stars of your favorite HBO dramas had crossed over some crazy time line to show one another what for. Pedretti, too, is ready-made for her strong-willed, occasionally fretful, role, and as her inner circle, Eberhardt, Matthew August Jeffers and Alan Trong are excellent. David Patrick Kelly, as the proudly ignorant father-in-law, and Thomas Jay Ryan, as a cowardly printer/publisher, nail the bulk of the play’s humor.

Performed beneath some very lovely hanging candles (the gorgeous, deep-mood lighting is by Isabella Byrd), the play is sometimes accented with what sound like period Norwegian folk songs performed by cast extras. An Enemy of the People is stuffed with such little surprises, even without intruders.

Title: An Enemy Of The People
Venue: Broadway’s Circle In The Square
Written By: Henrik Ibsen, In A New Version By Amy Herzog
Directed By: Sam Gold
Cast: Jeremy Strong, Michael Imperioli, Victoria Pedretti, Katie Broad, Bill Buell, Caleb Eberhardt, Matthew August Jeffers, David Patrick Kelly, David Mattar Merten, Max Roll, Thomas Jay Ryan, and Alan Trong
Running time: 2 hrs (including one pause)

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