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'An Enemy of the People' on Broadway

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Flickr: CODYody
Flickr: CODYody

The Manhattan Theatre Club production of the Ibsen play An Enemy of the People opened last Friday on Broadway to mostly positive reviews. I too mostly liked it in the streamlined rip-roaring translation by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Director Doug Hughes has pitched the proceedings at times to an almost feverish pace as the political passions pour forth especially in the second act as brother is pitted against brother and townsperson against townsperson. In this season of American politics it was especially engaging to witness Ibsen's political engagement of some of the same arguments we are still having in the 21st century -- the tyranny of the majority, the lonely struggle for justice against such tyranny, and even the morality of trickle-down economics. Ibsen indicts both the left and the right politically for its selfishness and protective stances regarding retaining their own staked out and respective power centers.

Richard Thomas is the stoic and staid villain of the play, one Peter Stockmann, whose political villainy is based on the vested interest he has in retaining his own status as the town's mayor and chairman of the company that runs the spa that depends on the "baths" that his brother, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, has scientifically proven are spewing poison after being polluted from the runoff of the tanneries above them. And yet, Boyd Gains -- an old classmate of mine from Group VIII in 1975 at the Juilliard School of Drama who plays Dr. Stockmann -- has just as much invested in his own self-interest in seeing himself as a hero and savior no matter the consequences to his fellow townsmen. Boyd, a Broadway stalwart, is stunning in this role. Stirring. And even, finally, a bit heartbreaking.

The shutting down of "the baths" had a troubling echo to my gay man's ears of a time in New York City when such arguments were being made about another form of infection such baths were causing among a more modern set of townspeople in the late 20th century compared to Ibsen's late 19th century populace. And Dr. Stockmann reminded me of another old friend of mine, Larry Kramer, who too could be a lonely passionate voice against the tyranny of the majority that has never managed, thank God, to shut him up. An Enemy of the People is a kind of template for Larry's play The Normal Heart. At each such juncture we need our Dr. Stockmanns, as Ibsen seems to be saying, just as we need our Larry Kramers. They can be maddening in their incessant rants of "I AM RIGHT!" But more often than not that is what they are.

I loved this production An Enemy of the People. It is full of political posturing and passion and shouting and confrontation. But spending two hours with Gains and Thomas and this wonderful cast is better than parking oneself in front of one's television for two hours of Fox News invective or the opposite high-decibel-delivered position -- even if it is correct in my estimation -- on MSNBC.

It is all, finally, theatre. One might as well go sit in a real one to enjoy it.