Theater review: An ‘Enemy’ that’s easily taken on

Boyd Gaines, left, and Richard Thomas star in “An Enemy of the People.”

If you’ve never quite seen the appeal of Henrik Ibsen, that shouldn’t keep you from trying “An Enemy of the People,” his 1882 drama that’s made more palatable to modern audiences by Rebecca Lenkiewicz and now onstage at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

The story follows a Norwegian scientist who discovers that the town’s baths, its main source of income, are poisonous. In his quest to spread the word, he runs up against political powers with counterintuitive interests — and truth-telling becomes a task that threatens not only his reputation, but his family and friends as well.

Although it would have been easily stunt-casted, this production doesn’t hedge on a star-studded roster. The actors are all onstage to do a job — to deliver a message — and they get it done with seamless uniformity. And don’t expect showy special effects that might detract from that agenda, either. Smoothly rotating set pieces offer a handful of minimalist tableaus for the home, offices and meetinghouse where this play takes place. The only downside is an insensible sheer curtain that wafts across the stage between scenes as if someone thought it a convenient chance to air-dry his bedsheets. At one point, the cast directly addresses the audience as if its members are the play’s townspeople. Is this director Doug Hughe’s war cry for us to sit up and pay attention? It’s unnecessary, as a majority of the two-hour run time is spent hollering an already heavy-handed script.

Yes, this play literally bellows out bias toward its underdogs; it’s like we aren’t trusted to form our own thoughts. Isn’t that precisely what the text is asking us to do? But that doesn’t mean it’s not an enjoyable evening of theater, mostly for its rousing message and exciting family conflict that pits wife against husband, brother against brother. Regardless of who’s right or wrong in the end, the lingering message about the fearsomeness of mob mentality will make you think twice the next time a controversial idea has the masses clutching their pearls — or their pitchforks.

If you go

‘An Enemy of the People’
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th St.


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