Review: A Strong Enemy of the People Gets an Unexpected Real-World Jolt

Sam Gold’s sharply accelerating production reveals the horror of hypocrisy.

An Enemy of the people
Photo: Emilio Madrid

“No theater on a dead planet!” is a chanted refrain that does not appear in Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play An Enemy of a People. Nor is it part of the 2024 English adaptation by playwright Amy Herzog, who’s preserved the play’s late-19th-century setting (and who also skillfully adapted A Doll’s House last season). But it was perhaps the most resonant line in the reviewed performance of this production, which, as has now been widely reported, was interrupted by a trio of protestors from the climate activism group Extinction Rebellion.

If you see An Enemy of the People—which, to be clear, you should—chances are that the disruptors will stay home for your performance. But this particular protest was so shrewdly timed, so thematically linked, as to have rendered it impossible for the audience to ascertain whether it was part of the production or not. It’s tough to separate the play that An Enemy of the People became post-protest from the play it was meant to be.

At the start of the second act, Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Jeremy Strong) has called a town meeting to share a truth that he can’t keep silent: The waters of the Baths, soon to open to tourists in hopes of saving the local economy, have been contaminated by the upstream tanneries. If visitors seeking rejuvenation enter these waters, many will get sick. Some may die.

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It’s at this crucial moment in Sam Gold’s already taut, tense production, when the houselights are up and some audience members have been moved to on-stage seats, that the protesters pounced. The cast, seemingly unshaken, remained in character: Strong shouted for them to be heard while Michael Imperioli, deliciously self-important and self-serving as the mayor who also happens to be Dr. Stockmann’s brother, physically charged at the intruders to expel them from the Circle in the Square Theatre. (Imperioli later clarified in an Instagram post that he was acting: “Michael is on your side, but Mayor Stockmann is not. Much love.”)

Though Gold has staged plenty of more or less naturalistic productions, his recent work on Broadway has tended toward avant-garde reimaginings, like the bracingly symbolic King Lear at the Cort Theatre and Macbeth at the Longacre Theatre that I enjoyed, largely in critical solitude. So it felt entirely imaginable that he and Herzog might have inserted a contemporary intervention intended to unsettle the audience.

But this Enemy of the People, on most nights anyway, is a more traditional affair, even if Gold sometimes sends his actors hurtling away from the claustrophobic set (by the design collective known as dots), up the aisles of Circle in the Square. (A couple of clunky, spell-breaking set changes, accompanied by live Norwegian folk singing, occasionally slacken the pace.)

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Dr. Stockmann, much like his cornered home in the center of a theater in the round, is a rectangular peg in a round hole. The widower has returned to his Norwegian hometown with his schoolteacher daughter, Petra (Victoria Pedretti), and schoolboy son (who never appears on stage). It was Dr. Stockmann’s idea to re-energize the community with a spa resort, but now that the construction is complete, he’s discovered that the waters are teeming with bacteria.

An Enemy of the People
Jeremy Strong and Michael Imperioli in An Enemy of the People. Emilio Madrid

The problem is that no one seems to care. Led by Imperioli’s lonely mayor, hostile toward his brother from the start, one after another of Dr. Stockmann’s would-be fellow truth-tellers waver as they confront the personal financial consequences of shutting down the poisonous Baths. Gold ensures that each turn arrives as a bit of an electric shock, with the first act gathering momentum every time the army in opposition to Dr. Stockmann grows.

Strong, so unscrupulously puerile as Succession’s Kendall Roy, couldn’t be more different here as a doctor who’s both absolutely right and inexhaustably self-righteous: He knows how much he knows, and it’s infuriating to him that others don’t trust his judgment. It’s a masterful career pivot for Strong toward this unflinchingly principled character. (Kendall, it perhaps goes without saying, would have jumped ship at the very first sign of economic risk.)

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Strong is at his livid best when his character dons the mayor’s top hat and mocks his egoism. But his brother knows him well, too, and when the mayor asserts that Dr. Stockmann “has always been incapable of nuance,” we also recognize in Strong’s performance a man who’s chosen, however nobly, to live just a little bit outside of the real world’s checks and balances.

Elsewhere, Thomas Jay Ryan exudes an increasingly maddening slipperiness as the self-serving “moderate” printer Alaksen. And Pedretti breathes an intrepid integrity into her Petra, especially by play’s end, when father and daughter have become near-equal centers of gravity. But it’s Caleb Eberhardt, magnetic in a series of radically varied recent roles (Choir Boy, The Comeuppance, On Sugarland), who makes the strongest impression among the ensemble as the firebrand newspaperman dead set on putting “a stop to the kneejerk worship of authority in this town,” at least until his own professional future is on the line.

When An Enemy of the People played the Park Avenue Armory in summer 2021, in a modern-day, choose-your-own-adventure guise, the adaptation felt like a clear climate change parable. Here, in Herzog’s accessible, gently faithful translation, Dr. Stockmann seems more like a Dr. Fauci figure, shouting caution into a dismissive wind, once even describing what will occur at the Baths as an epidemic: “This is unbelievable!” he cries when his brother demands a retraction of the report. “I’m a doctor, I’m a scientist! I have to be able to offer my expert opinion!”

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Gold’s sharply accelerating production reveals the horror of hypocrisy, but, without outside assistance, it doesn’t quite challenge the audience’s own complicity. By the time the third Extinction Rebellion protestor arose, most of the crowd met him with vehement boos. Minutes later, Dr. Stockmann was back on his own soapbox demanding that he himself be heard: “Ask yourselves—Is what I’m saying dangerous? Or is ignorance dangerous? You don’t have to agree with me, I just ask that you listen, because I don’t have any reason to be up here, ruining my career, making my family suffer, except that I care about this place.”

An Enemy of the People, on any night, may pose the question of whether we all care enough about this place to listen. Of course we do, we’ll probably answer. We’re the good guys. But interrupt our entertainment? Then I wouldn’t be so sure.

An Enemy of the People is now running at the Circle in the Square Theatre.

Dan Rubins

Dan Rubins is a writer, composer, and arts nonprofit leader. He’s also written about theater for CurtainUp, Theatre Is Easy, A Younger Theatre, and the journal Shakespeare. Check out his podcast The Present Stage.

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