Contemporary productions of classical theater can sometimes — or, let’s face it, almost always — feel waxy and dead inside the glass casings of their own pageantry. Watching them can be a tedious ritual, one you submit to with dread. You know the play’s good for you because it’s so boring. That musty thing you smell is the play’s Importance. You leave, maybe having had a Cultural Experience, but not one with anything relevant to say about the world outside the theater doors.
Manhattan Theatre Club’s new production of Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” which just opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway, avoids this sanctimoniousness in large part because of the sleek, smart new translation — or, as they’re calling it, “a new version” — by Rebecca Lenkiewicz.
Ibsen singlehandedly invented the “issue drama,” and in “An Enemy of the People,” the issue is censorship. The story revolves around a scientist named Thomas Stockmann (played in this production by Boyd Gaines, channeling a young-ish Teddy Kennedy) who, having uncovered a scandal involving poison in the water that feeds the spa in his small tourist town, is first embraced as a great reformer, then threatened, blackmailed and publicly excoriated so that the town can keep raking in the dough. Like all of Ibsen’s work, “Enemy” is full of feverish idealism and political fury, which is part of what drew Lenkiewicz to him.
I met Lenkiewicz in the patron’s lounge of the Manhattan Theatre Club. She presented a warm, inviting image — quick to laugh and often seemingly more interested in asking questions of her interviewer than promoting herself.
“I think he was very brave,” she said of Ibsen when we finally began discussing the play. “Very brave and very angry. And I think anger can be a very useful fuel for writing. It’s about freedom. I’m not religious in any way, but if I do have a belief it’s in freedom. That’s why this play appealed to me, because it’s about someone fighting to be free.”
Lenkiewicz’s adaptation touches on a host of issues that could have been ripped from this week’s headlines: environmental destruction, the capitalist imperative to put profit above people’s wellbeing, governmental and corporate corruption, politicians’ manipulation of the masses and, of course, the aforementioned censorship. At times the play feels like it was written in reaction to the Tea Party or the Occupy Movement — or, maybe most directly, to Julian Assange and the American government’s response to WikiLeaks, something Lenkiewicz and the cast discussed in rehearsal. Talking about Stockmann and his plight, she explained: “This is a man whom people are trying to silence, which is terrifying and which is happening on a daily basis all over the world, not just in the Third World. In the Western world, people are being silenced.”