By Lauren Yarger
What's more important, the public's right to know or the need to stimulate the economy? Don't like the facts? Change 'em. Want to keep religion out of the schools? Curb free speech. Don't want the public to hear what your opponent has to say? Smear him, charge "class warfare" and make sure the press is on your side.
If this all sounds like today's political headlines, think again. It is the makeup of Henrik Ibsen's 1882 play An Enemy of the People in a sharply updated Broadway version (by Rebecca Lenkiewicz) produced by Manhattan Theatre Club. Doug Hughes directs Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas in a fast-paced psychological thriller.
Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Gaines) has made an astonishing discovery. The baths, from which his coastal town in Norway derives economic prosperity as tourists come seeking a healthy spa experience, actually are toxic. It seems that the pipes carrying the water to the baths were not buried deeply enough -- despite Thomas' warnings in the first place -- and now pollution from the tannery owned by his testy father-in-law, Morten Kiil (Michael Sieberry), is making the waters a death trap.
Thomas is championed as a hero for making the discovery by his wife, Catherine (Kathleen McNenny), free-thinking daughter, Petra (Maite Alina), and a few others who know about his work. Hovstad (John Procaccino), publisher of the town's paper, immediately sets printer Aslaksen (a drole Gerry Bamman) into action to put Thomas' report into print so everyone can be warned.
"To have the respect of one's fellow man -- it's beautiful," Thomas says as he ponders what kind of parade the town might choose to honor him.
Thomas' brother, Peter (Richard Thomas), however, has a different idea: bury the report. As the mayor -- he wears that hat proudly and literally -- he is more concerned with the economic impact a health scare will have on the tourists coming to use the baths and spend money in the town. His concerns start to win over supporters among the townspeople, especially when the staggering cost -- and the necessary tax hike to fund it -- to relay the pipes becomes apparent. Peter questions the findings in Thomas' report and successfully creates diversions to keep anyone from remembering that it was Peter who advocated for the design shortcut over Thomas' objections in the first place.
In a flood of self preservation, the townspeople swiftly turn on Thomas. A river of hate washes away any the public hero and he is labeled, instead, an enemy of the people. Beyond the genuinely interesting plot and obvious similarities to current political techniques to boost approval ratings and polls, there's a deeper psychological study taking place that keeps us guessing about who the heroes and enemies really are and what motivates their actions until the very end.
Gaines gives a layered performance as the man who goes from trying to be humble at the thought of friends honoring him at the head of a parade to fearing that he'll be run out out of town by a bloodthirsty mob. His boisterous turn is nicely balanced by Richard Thomas as this priggish, power hungry, uncaring brother who sees himself as the "moral guardian" of everyone but himself.
Standing out from the ensemble is James Waterston as Billing, a reporter at the paper who amuses as he offers screaming support and enthusiasm (think that Jingos!™ cracker commercial) then switches to venomous opponent.
Hughes successfully breaks down the fourth wall to create a feeling that the audience is part of the "liberal majority." Actors leave John Lee Beatty's set to stroll through the house at times with transitions aided by and lighting (Ben Stanton, design) and music (original music and sound design by David Van Tieghem). In fact, when one audience member sneezed, Gaines said "bless you" in a way that seemed a natural part of the script.
An Enemy of the People plays a limited run at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th St., NYC through Nov. 11 Tickets/info: http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/
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-- Lord’s name taken in vain