New York Review: PUBLIC ENEMY

Chekhov and Ibsen are the two modern playwrights proving irresistible to the contemporary theatre makers and contemporary audiences, with endless productions starry and small, reverential and experimental. Each of these nineteenth century giants represents a different strain in contemporary society; if Chekhov speaks to our sense of helplessness and self-doubt, Ibsen speaks to our sense of social outrage.

And, given that outrage seems to be the tenor of our times, Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is particularly relevant, dealing as it does with a town—citizens, elected officials, journalists, everybody—willing to sacrifice public safety at the altar of greed. Everybody, that is, but one man whose discovery that the town’s famous spa waters are toxic. Instead of calling him a hero, the town labels him a public enemy.  No need to search far for startling relevance: remember the recent water scandal in Flint, Michigan.

But the trouble with Ibsen’s play is that it’s very very long: five acts of outrage dampens the ardour. So David Harrower, the contemporary Scottish playwright (Blackbird), has revised Ibsen’s text and given us a short, punchy ninety-minute version, now in an engrossing production at the Pearl Theatre Company. 

In this new version, the Stockmanns are an attractive family living in a sleek, tasteful home (set by Harry Feiner).  Dr. Stockmann (Jimonn Cole) is the resident physician who makes the horrifying discovery that the tannery’s waste has polluted the baths, a tourist attraction on which the town’s economy depends. Trouble is, the tannery is owned by his father-in-law, and the town’s mayor is his brother (Guiesseppe Jones).  The doctor’s wife (Nilaja Sun) stands by her man while trying to calm his uncompromising rage. Their daughter, Petra (Arielle Goldman) is filled with youthful indignation and loyalty to her father.

Everybody else—the revolutionary journalists (Alex Purcell and Robbie Tann both too loud) and the printer (John Keating) turn cowardly, and as Stockmann’s sensible, civic-minded arguments are met with greed, he is, at first, shocked by the town’s craven self-interest.

But then his cogent arguments descend into a long rant about Truth, Justice and the Norwegian Way. Is this Ibsen’s shrewd portrait of the way fighting City Hall distorts a rational person?

Hal Brooks’ direction brings up the houselights and has Stockmann accuse the audience, turning the play into a faux political rally. It strikes me that Harrower has streamlined the play but not dramatized it: a harangue is still a harangue even when its aptness in this appalling political campaign, is about the ignorance of the electorate and “the gang rape of democracy.”  Who is this “public enemy”?  The interpretation careens from noble whistleblower to egotistical demagogue (“I’m the strongest man in the world” he declares), leaving me wondering if there’s anybody worth rooting for.

The Pearl Theatre Co. 555 W. 42nd St., New York. Extended through Nov. 6.