AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE: Watered Down, Liquored Up — Review


Jeremy Strong | Photo: Emilio Madrid

Juan A. Ramirez
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March 18, 2024 10:00 PM

Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play, An Enemy of the People, is neither subtle nor the Norwegian writer’s strongest drama, but it has an idealism which, though bordering on naiveté, creates a compelling enough thought experiment. It concerns an upright physician who, after finding harmful bacteria in the water supply of his small town’s recently opened spa, encounters hypocrisy and resistance from the townspeople who, though initially supportive, grow concerned by the financial hit which would result from confronting the health crisis.

A starry revival starring Jeremy Strong as the quixotic Dr. Stockmann opens tonight at Circle in the Square Theatre, and though the climate protesters who disrupted the performance I attended certainly brought its flaws into starker relief, Amy Herzog’s watered-down adaptation was already a lost cause.

It must be said the cast – which also features Michael Imperioli as the doctor’s brother, the town’s corrupt mayor – turns in fine performances, though Sam Gold’s direction guides the production toward an unnecessary slower-burn. (David Zinn’s costumes, and dots’ scenic design, naturally, are also gorgeous).

Herzog’s take on the material, attempting to soften Ibsen’s grandiloquence, smoothes out the characters’ stances. Dr. Stockmann is not a very compelling character; he essentially makes his discovery in the play’s first scene, then spends the remaining four rallying against the opposition. It’s not dramatically dynamic, but the righteousness is the point. Here, he hedges. He wants to believe the politicians and even doubts his own evidence.

Caleb Eberhardt and Victoria Pedretti | Photo: Emilio Madrid

So, when a town hall meeting doesn’t go his way, having him be physically attacked as violently as he is by the locals feels like a last-ditch attempt to satiate the bros in the audience who had been sitting for over an hour, patiently waiting for their HBO stars to engage in some screaming.

Of course, all hell had already broken loose directly preceding this scene.

The first act ends with Stockmann’s impassioned announcement that he will stand up for himself at the municipal meeting. At that moment, a-ha’s synth-pop classic “Take On Me” began to play, as a bar descended from above the stage to invite of-age patrons to take free shots of Linie aquavit during intermission in an insane bit of branded activation. The play about noble perseverance made a fatal concession toward likability. And when the second act started, members of the audience were selected to remain onstage for the town hall, to add to the scene’s rowdy atmosphere.

But the production’s interventionary bluff was called by three climate activists who – in what initially seemed an immersive bit of staging – stood up, plead their case about there being “no theatre on a dead planet,” and were promptly escorted out.

Such cases of throwing paint at the Mona Lisa are typically eye roll-inducing, and I doubt these members of Extinction Rebellion NYC won over any Planeteers that night, but they did (unwittingly?) draw attention to the neutered state of theatre-as-activism.

Michael Imperioli | Photo: Emilio Madrid

Because, how quickly the audience turned on the people interrupting their night out, enjoying their favorite star from the ostensibly anti-capitalist Succession. And, in an evening marked by performativity on both sides of the limelight, how unbelievably corny of the production to make Strong angrily toss leftover shot glasses into a trash pile after the town hall scene, as if to implicate and condemn the audience for having drank during his trials.

Strong seemed to remain in character, even asking for the protesters to be allowed to speak as Imperioli and others, also in character, helped kick them out. The tension in his sulky disposition at that moment – half commitment, half actual anguish – proved to be the most incendiary comment on performativity, idealism, and action of the night. 

An Enemy of the People is in performance through June 16, 2024 at Circle in the Square Theatre on West 50th Street in New York City.

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Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez writes arts and culture reviews, features, and interviews for publications in New York and Boston, and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed. Thanks to his MA in Film and Media Studies from Columbia University, he has suddenly found himself the expert on Queer Melodrama in Venezuelan Cinema, and is figuring out ways to apply that.

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