Review | ‘Enemy of the People,’ with Jeremy Strong and Michael Imperioli, mirrors today’s politics

Jeremy Strong in An Enemy of the People
Jeremy Strong in “An Enemy of the People” on Broadway
Photo by Emilio Madrid/provided

A preview performance of the new Broadway revival of “An Enemy of the People” on March 14 was interrupted by climate change protesters, who were swiftly removed from the theater. Due to the subject matter of the play and the nature of the scene occurring at the time, many audience members believed the episode had been a preplanned, experimental touch.

I wish I had been there (alas, I attended the following night), as it would have been an exciting addition to this uneven production of a timely work.

Henrik Ibsen’s 19th century drama, seen here in a new adaptation by playwright Amy Herzog, follows Dr. Thomas Stockmann concludes that deadly bacteria has contaminated his town’s newly constructed baths. Although initially celebrated for his findings, once his neighbors realize that shutting down the bath’s would ruin them financially, they turn against the doctor, even publicly declaring him an “enemy of the people” and threatening the safety of him and his family.

The period-style revival (staged in the round at Circle in the Square) stars Jeremy Strong (fresh from the final season of the HBO series “Succession”) as Stockmann, opposite Michael Imperioli (veteran of another acclaimed HBO drama, “The Sopranos,” as well as “The White Lotus”) as the town’s mayor, who also happens to be Stockmann’s brother and chief opponent. Strong’s sensitive and manic performance is not unlike a variation of Kendall Roy on “Succession” – smart, flawed, and insular. Imperioli, on the other hand, walks a fine line between coolness and insecurity.

Michael Imperioli in An Enemy of the People
Michael Imperioli in “An Enemy of the People” on Broadway.Photo by Emilio Madrid/provided

The play is a mirror-like parable through which one can see all kinds of modern-day parallels. The climate change protesters no doubt identified with the doctor, trying desperately to raise awareness of an existential crisis despite being ignored or ridiculed by so much of society that does not want to deal with the economic costs of environmental protection.

One could easily also draw parallels to COVID-19 (especially when the original impulse of many was to dismiss the fears of a pandemic as unwarranted) and the increasingly violent vilification of the press, experts, and opposition parties. The way in which the townspeople swiftly switch from praising the doctor to condemning him mirrors so many Republican politicians who went from criticizing Trump to pledging their unwavering loyalties for the sake of their self-preservation.

On the other hand, political conservatives could probably see themselves in the figure of Stockmann, with the town’s refusal to let him publish his medical report standing for a lack of freedom of speech or thought on social media or college campuses.

The first half of the production (which runs two hours with a just brief pause instead of an intermission) contains some questionable design and directorial choices, including extremely dim lighting in order to emphasize the use of candle-lit lamps inside Stockmann’s house, a rectangular set design that resembles a hockey arena, and foreign-language folk songs during scene changes. Much of the acting feels stiff and stodgy, which is often the case in revivals of Ibsen plays with rare exceptions (such as last season’s revelatory Broadway revival of “A Doll’s House”).

The production truly works best in the town meeting sequence, in which the doctor struggles to communicate his findings to the community. Audience members feel as if they are at the pub where the scene is taking place, with many invited to sit onstage and the rest offered complimentary shots of liquor. The scene also concludes with an act of mob violence (in which ice buckets are poured upon the doctor).  It all makes for great environmental theater – and the unexpected addition of the climate change protesters must have made for a rowdy, on-point addition.

Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 West 50th St., anenemyofthepeopleplay.com.