Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (Friedman Theatre) is a play so necessary, and so exhilarating to experience, that I feel slightly abashed saying that the Manhattan Theatre Club’s new production, directed by Doug Hughes in an adaptation by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is a disorderly mishmash of good and bad in every department. The good ultimately outweighs the bad only because Hughes’s seemingly random miscellany of directorial choices leaves audiences the option to perceive the work’s complexity for themselves, where a more rigidly single-minded interpretation might have obstructed their view. Randomness has its advantages.
Ibsen was angry when he wrote En Folkefiende in 1882. His previous play, Ghosts, had been denounced and banned from performance all over Europe (it ultimately had its world premiere in Chicago); he wrote its successor in half the time he normally took to shape a new work. The result, though rarely seen here in recent years because of its large cast size, was a giant success in its own time. A malicious satire as deeply tragic as it is bitterly funny, Enemy pleases everybody by leaving no political position unscathed: Audiences all across the political spectrum can blame their opponents for the way things are.
The hero, Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Boyd Gaines), is an honest, serious-minded scientist facing an environmental crisis. Just before the tourist season starts, he learns that the mineral springs from which his town derives the bulk of its income, as a health resort, have become dangerously polluted, largely with runoff from the local tannery. Stockmann immediately assumes that if he makes a huge public announcement of the danger, the townspeople will instantly accept the need to shut down the baths and relay the pipes in a safer location. The poor schnook has no clue to the even worse polluted political waters into which he’s diving; Ibsen’s heroes are generally jerks about dealing with real-world matters.
Stockmann soon learns that the solution he proposes would break the town financially, as well as destroy its reputation as a health resort. Additionally, the spa’s wealthy shareholders, who make up the town’s political elite, have no intention of shouldering the enormous cost of rerouting the pipes, and plan to lay this burden on the taxpayers’ shoulders. Worst of all, Stockmann naively fails to realize how deeply he himself is ensnarled in the controversy. His post as medical supervisor is a political plum tossed him by his elder brother, Peter (Richard Thomas), who is both the town’s mayor and head of the corporation. Peter’s political archenemies include, on the left, the platitude-spouting liberal newspaper editor Hovstad (John Procaccino), who has eyes for Stockmann’s schoolteacher daughter, Petra (Maïté Alina), and on the extreme right, the miserly tannery owner, Morten Kiil (Michael Siberry)—Stockmann’s father-in-law, whose enormous fortune Stockmann’s kids will inherit.
This panorama of densely twisted personal entanglements, with the Stockmann brothers’ wrenching mixture of brotherly love and sibling envy dead center, transforms a simple public health crisis into a steadily escalating extravaganza of accusations and counter-accusations, with allegiances shifting like papers in a high wind. While the anti-Stockmannite reaction steadily gains more and more allies, Dr. Stockmann himself gets increasingly unhinged. Ibsen makes clear that, though Stockmann’s opponents wholly lack scruple and backbone, he himself constitutes a very problematic hero, notwithstanding the scientific truth of his cause.
Anxiety to convey Ibsen’s trickily balanced structure may underlie Hughes’s frenetic, try-anything production, which does everything but steadily escalate. It veers from pointless shouting—Gaines pitches his first entrance so high that he seems half-mad already—down to instant, arbitrary whispers. John Lee Beatty’s sets appear to alter their areas spasmodically, abetted by the abrupt leaps into darkness of Ben Stanton’s lighting. Lenkiewicz’s script turns Ibsen’s relatively plain-spoken text into a daffy jumble of antique locutions and 21st-century buzzwords. Instead of building tension, the climactic town meeting seems to stop dead and restart half a dozen times.
Over this chaos, Ibsen’s clarity rises, plainly visible. Gaines conveys Stockmann’s essence with sweetness and vigor. Though lacking Peter’s weightiness, Thomas invests him with a sly charm. While some of the supporting cast are either unfocused or inadequate, Gerry Bamman gives a droll, forceful performance as the printer, Aslaksen, the play’s voice of stuffy moderation. And thanks to Siberry’s juicily caricatured Morten Kiil, I finally know what an editorial cartoon of a Tea Party member should look like.