Monday, October 29, 2012

Theater Review: ‘Enemy of the People,’ at the Manhattan Theatre Club

There are two really good reasons why fans of good theater should make their way to the Manhattan Theater Club (MTC) for its new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play, An Enemy of the People. The first is the opportunity to see a rarely performed play by this 19th-century master of realistic drama in something akin to the spirit in which it was written. The second is the chance to see—for the umpteenth time on a New York stage—an actor whose underemployment on TV and film has made him the darling of Gotham theater aficionados: Boyd Gaines.

An Enemy of the People might be my favorite Ibsen play, but in three decades of theatergoing I had never seen it performed until the preview performance by the MTC a couple of weeks ago.  Directors have taken to other plays by the Scandinavian playwright, seeing in them feminist rallying cries (A Doll’s House), early warnings about religious extremism and untruths about sexually transmitted diseases (Ghosts), dissections of capitalism (John Gabriel Borkman), or even vehicles for exploring bipolar disorders (Hedda Gabbler).

You’d think that Ibsen’s dramedy about a doctor’s environmental crusade would be made to order for today’s theater world. But the content has erected powerful obstacles.

For those who want their protagonists one-dimensionally heroic, Lillian Hellman’s stage manifestos are more congenial than Ibsen’s complex work that satirizes its hero when it is not attacking the townspeople who make him an outcast. And Dr. Thomas Stockmann’s scathing criticism of “the damned, solid, liberal majority”—backed by the playwright’s problematic belief in a superior mind produced by a Darwinian survival of the fittest—might as well be Kryptonite for today's theater professionals.

When people have had the chance to watch the play over the years, there’s a good chance that it was Arthur Miller’s 1950 adaptation, not Ibsen’s version. No matter what the playwright’s significant strengths, a willingness to take a point of view seriously before knocking it down was not among them. His version of Enemy of the People is a prime case in point, written at the height of McCarthyism, with Thomas Stockmann analogous to blacklist victims of Miller’s time.

The creator of Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View From the Bridge will likely continue to be performed till the end of the lifetime of children now growing up, but the adversaries of his heroes are one-dimensional. He simply could not conceive of the strident dissident that annoys the very people he wants to help. His is a theater of straw men, inspired less by the complexity and good humor of Ibsen and Shaw than giving rise to the self-righteous Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing. What Miller’s Enemy gains in ditching in ditching Ibsen’s diatribes against the leveling influence in democratic societies, he loses in presenting an entirely one-sided argument without psychological dimension.

And so, this production, based on a new adaptation by British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, was all the more necessary. Sure, there’s the occasional anachronism (“cash cow”). But with help from director Doug Hughes, we finally have an Enemy of the People close to what the playwright intended.

Consider a short but telling exchange. Dr. Stockmann’s hero-worshipping daughter Petra, marveling at her father’s energy, blurts out that he’s been “working like a maniac” lately. Stockmann’s wife quickly hushes her up. It’s a hint that the doctor’s prosperity as staff physician at the municipal baths has been hard-won not simply because of his diligence, but also because his last medical stint in a rural Norwegian village likely ended in his nervous collapse.

This production is exceptionally well served in its lead, Gaines, who invests Dr. Stockmann with the energy of a mad stalk. This actor, perhaps known to TV viewers as Valerie Bertinelli’s husband on One Day at a Time nearly three decades ago, has graced New York theaters since then with one outstanding performance after another, in the likes of Company, Contact, Pygmalion, and 12 Angry Men, winning four Tony Awards in the process.

The complexity of Dr. Stockmann’s position can be seen here in his relationship to his brother Peter, who, as mayor of the town, is also Thomas’ boss. Prior translations of Ibsen emphasized Peter’s pomposity as much as Thomas’ heedlessness. To be sure, as played here by Richard Thomas (The Waltons’ John-Boy Walton, well into middle age), he is caught up in the perks of his position. But he’s also seriously angered that the sibling he helped rescue from penury now stands opposed to what had promised to be the mayor’s greatest achievement: the baths (advocated originally by the doctor himself, then placed, unbeknownst to him, in a mill that pumps its wastes into the pipes) that once promised to boost their coastal town’s economy.

Where Thomas thinks little of expenditures by either himself or the town, Peter is fixated on keeping both in check; where Thomas is utterly impolitic, Peter is the consummate politico, watching his every word and move. They are on a collision course, ending in a climactic battle just before intermission that is acted by Gaines and Thomas in a manner that heightens the overtones of this Cain-and-Abel relationship.

Hughes stages the town meeting where the tensions between the brothers break out publicly in all its raucousness and irony (the only dissenter in the proceedings—all stacked against the doctor—is the town drunk). It’s an event that leaves Dr. Stockmann perilously alone, but for his family, at curtain time—an appropriate, if subdued, ending to a show that convincingly highlights the enduring predicament of a whistle-blower in a democracy whose majority can be all too easily manipulated by leading citizens into self-destructive choices.


Ken Houghton said...

Gaines, uh, hasn't exactly been out of television since he turned 31 and the cash cow of ODaaT went off the air.

MikeT said...

Most of these have been guest appearances, though--nothing like the constant, week-to-week exposure he had back then.