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Stage Door: An Enemy of the People, Ten Chimneys

10/01/2012 10:06 am ET | Updated Dec 01, 2012

Political screeds are tricky, though relevant in an election year. It may be why the Manhattan Theatre Club revived Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, which pits a righteous Dr. Stockmann (a hyper-charged Boyd Gaines), who rails against endangering public welfare, against everyone else.

Now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, Enemy of the People is a well-staged tirade against ethical equivocation.

The doctor lives in a spa town, dependent on tourism and the baths. Discovering the water is contaminated, he raises the alarm. The cost of rebuilding the pipes, warns the mayor (Richard Thomas) is astronomical. The mayor and the doctor are brothers, and their Cain-and-Abel battle is staged with dramatic fury. Thomas is a smug, smooth-talking villain; Gaines envelopes his zeal with a martyr's arrogance.

Much like modern-day discussions of nuclear reactors or fracking, the conservative mayor insists the findings are inconclusive and will cost jobs. The doctor counters the baths are spreading typhus and killing people. Both the crusading editor (John Procaccino) and the cautious trade leader (Gerry Bamman) join the fray. The doctor dreams of accolades; instead, everyone wants to kill the messenger.

Ibsen rebukes conservatives and liberals alike for being self-serving, treacherous and dishonest. He assails the mediocrity of community, trumpeting the enlightened individual. "The majority is the most insidious enemy to freedom," cries the doctor, leaving democracy in a dead heap.

The taut production, with a naturalistic John Lee Beatty set design, builds in tension. Gaines delivers an inspired performance. Act two, in which the doctor unleashes his wrath, was clearly radical in Victorian times. His points are valid, but his philosophical rant goes off-point in the pursuit of his goal. Despite its strong start, Enemy devolves into a preachy rant. As Ibsen ruefully notes, it's the clever political manipulator, not the bellowing idealist, who carries the day.

In Ten Chimneys, it's Alfred Lunt (Bryon Jennings) and Lynn Fontanne (Carolyn McCormick) who own the stage. Set in August 1937, in their country estate in Wisconsin, the famed theatrical duo are rehearsing The Seagull. Two cast members who later achieved fame in their own right, Uta Hagen (Julia Bray) and Sydney Greenstreet (Michael McCarty), are in attendance.

The Jeffrey Hatcher play, now at the Theater at St. Clement's, reads like a day in the life of the Lunts. Alfred supports his mother, brother and sister, and their internecine squabbles take up as much time as any discussion of theatrical passions and egos.

While a close-up of the acting legends is appealing -- and the subtext of Chekov's classic could add drama, the play is curiously staid. There is no real story arc, no second-act reveal. The cast tries, but it's a tough slog. Ten Chimneys could use some heat.

For those who value dramatic flair, don't miss world-renown German chanteuse Ute Lemper at Joe's Pub Oct. 4,5, 6, 30 and 31. A master of Kurt Weill and songs of the Weimar Republic, the sultry Lemper is headed to warmer climes this round. She is debuting a new song cycle inspired by the sensual love poems of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Joining Lemper for the run at Joe's Pub are Tito Castro and JP Jofre on bandoneon, John Benthal on guitar, Steve Millhouse on bass and Andy Ezrin on piano.

Neruda, a diplomat who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, wrote poetry throughout his life. His best-known works were written during his exile from Chile in 1949. The songs featured here are interpretations of poems he wrote on Isla Negra, many for his third wife Mathilda. The songbook created by Lemper, which she calls "playful and provocative," is primarily in Spanish, with some French and English adaptations.