Mediocrity Always Trumps Genius

James Joyce loved Henrik Ibsen; he considered his work superior to Shakespeare’s.  In fact, an early, lost play of his—A Brilliant Career—was partially modeled on An Enemy of the People, which is currently being revived by the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.  In a puerile attempt to emulate the Master, I have tried my damnedest to appreciate if not worship the Norwegian playwright, but with little success.  I doubt this production of An Enemy of the People could be bested; unfortunately, the source material is so tedious, so belabored that even an all-star cast and crew cannot elevate it above its dated didacticism.

Dr. Thomas Stockman (Boyd Gaines), an idealist whose only flaws are egotism and male chauvinism (fairly pure for this play), topples onto the stage with infectious cheer, greeting a household of guests who will soon prove fair-weather friends: his brother and rival, Mayor Peter Stockman (Richard Thomas), the closet freethinker and atheist, newspaper editor Hovstad (John Procaccino), and Billing (James Waterson), a writer for the local daily The People’s Messenger who preaches revolution but practices bourgeois pragmatism.  He is also joined by those who will stand by his side when he is declared the eponymous enemy of the people, his wife Catherine (Kathleen McNenny), his progressive daughter, the schoolteacher Petra (Maïté Alina), and an apolitical seafarer, Captain Horster (Randall Newsome).

In this first act, Stockman’s amiability permeates the room—having just made an important discovery, he boozes, backslaps, and waxes poetic about earning the respect of his peers.  His discovery?  The medicinal baths, the “life blood” of their small coastal town, are in fact contaminated by waste from a nearby tannery.  In 1882, the word “bacteria” is still foreign to the common man, but Stockman, with the help of the newspaper, will spread the word and save the town.  He is, of course, oblivious to the political, social, and economic ramifications of such an endeavor, which will effectively bankrupt all his friends and neighbors.  A subsequent campaign of willful ignorance is launched against Stockman, who watches as both his reputation and his money evaporate overnight.

So while the first act is surprisingly delightful—Mr. Gaines, an excellent actor, plays Stockman with such giddy sincerity that we cannot help but smile along with him—the following four acts are marked by little more than screaming matches and righteous indignation.  One poster for the play reads, “THEY LIE, PEOPLE DIE!” an echo of the Bush-era slogan, “No One Died When Clinton Lied,” which suggests some sort of lasting political relevance—as the numbers of protestors in Union Square dwindle, and as a consistently less enthusiastic Obama campaign shuffles towards victory in November, An Enemy of the People might theoretically have something to say about dedication to change, about the trouble with leaving democracy in the hands of the masses.  But everything is shouted with such high-pitched violence that our ringing ears deafen us to Ibsen’s soapbox tirades.

Which is all the more unfortunate, since director Doug Hughes has packed this production with great actors.  Mr. Thomas slinks around stage with a cool smile, planting little drops of misinformation that allow everyone else to come to the conclusion that Dr. Stockman is wrong.  He is at his best when he is unruffled and sure of himself.  Mr. Newsome, too, has an attractive, grizzly honesty—he spends more time watching the action than participating in it, but there is something assuring about his unwavering integrity.  And Gerry Bamman, playing Aslaksen, the voice of the “solid majority,” brings welcome comic relief every time he pleads for moderation amid the incessant yelling.  He has the face of Droopy the Dog and the demeanor of an old-fashioned butler, eager to hold his meaningless position among “the people” while assuaging the powers that be.

Joyce may have preferred Ibsen to the Bard, but he is allowed the eccentric tastes of a genius that evade me.  Hamlet, most definitely, this is not.

An Enemy of the People runs through November 18th at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.  254 W. 54th Street  New York, NY.

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Aaron Botwick

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