Never mind that it takes place in 19th-century Norway. The battle between two brothers in An Enemy of the People, Henrik Ibsen’s spitting-mad screed against political hypocrisy among polite small-towners, tackles more hot-button election-year issues than an average hour of MSNBC.
In the Manhattan Theatre Club production now playing at Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Thomas (Boyd Gaines), an idealistic doctor, discovers that corporate greed has allowed toxins to be pumped into the famous baths of his spa town. His brother Peter (Richard Thomas), the town’s mayor, knows the news could ruin his community’s tourist economy and won’t allow word to get out, even if it means turning his own brother into a public scapegoat. Fracking, global warming, capitalist ethics, and the perils of anti-intellectualism all come to mind during the brothers’ ideological death-match, as Thomas broadens his target from local politics to democracy itself with a rage that evokes Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olberman at their most telegenically furious.
Another compelling reason for a 2012 revival is the crackling new adaptation courtesy of Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who navigates Ibsen’s wordplay — thorny intellectual arguments and blistering monologues peppered by snippets of banter — with both respect for his time and awareness of our own. It’s a tall task; Enemy plays as an all-words white-knuckle thriller without so much as a gun to raise the stakes. The dialogue supplies all the dramatic heat, and thanks to Lenkiewicz, there’s enough to all but set the stage on fire.
In fact, the most serious flaw of this handsome, classical production is that it burns a bit too hot. Under the direction of Dough Hughes (Doubt), the cast yell through half their lines so that Thomas and Peter’s intellectual war ends up being waged with decibels as much as ideals. When the doctor takes on the town’s hypocrisy at a community meeting — cleverly staged facing the audience to make us part of Ibsen’s odious ”majority” — Gaines’ stentorian boom makes a bigger impression than his character’s steel will.
The fact that the play turns hopelessly pedantic at that point, with Ibsen outright lecturing on government through an onstage avatar, doesn’t help matters. Nor does the realization that Gaines, by playing Thomas as a raving demagogue rather than an unrepentant truth seeker, leaves the play without any real hero. His choice adds to the drama’s nuance but detracts from its emotional heft, putting Thomas’ eventual fall in a muddled middle ground between tragedy and commeuppance. He may be the noble man ”who stands alone,” as he says in one of the play’s most famous passages. But in this production, it isn’t clear why anyone should want to join him in the first place. B
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)
NOTE: An earlier version of this review referred to Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s work as a translation, rather than an adaptation.