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“Enemy of the People” reviewed

Midway through the new version of An Enemy of the People adapted and directed respectively by the power couple Amy Herzog and Sam Gold, a full bar is lowered from the ceiling. The delights of this moment are manifold: Circle in the Square has no fly space, and we’ve had no hint that the compact, alley-style set created by the design collective dots — with its many real candles and oil lamps and its simple, rustic furnishings suggesting a late-1800s Norwegian home — is hiding anything. Even as we’re enjoying the architectural surprise, the house lights pop up, a couple of bartenders enter the stage, and the actors start beckoning audience members up for a drink. The show has no official intermission, but for the next ten minutes, during this informal “pause,” we’ll be invited to line up for free aquavit, mingle with the cast as they mill easily about the stage, chat with our neighbors, listen to some Norwegian folk music (beautifully sung by Katie Broad), and perhaps even stay on the set as the show continues.

Henrik Ibsen’s play, by that moment, is headed into its fourth act, in which its besieged hero attempts to share a devastating discovery with his fellow citizens. In Herzog and Gold’s rendering, the act emerges organically out of the genial disorder of roughly 700 people jumping at the chance for free drinks. As the play recommences, the space between performers and spectators is naturally, potently blurred. We are all, always, in this together, but we’re not always made to recognize the fact.

Perhaps Herzog and Gold have had the same conversation I’ve had with so many theater folks over so many drinks: Why don’t more theaters have bars? Not “$20 for a souvenir sippy cup of wine” bars — real bars. Why don’t they stay open after the show or open before? People should want to stick around and drink and talk — why don’t we facilitate that? Or perhaps they simply saw a way to crack open Ibsen’s play and went for it. Whatever the case, the gesture is as profound as it is pleasurable. Like Arthur Miller, Ibsen was a writer of deep moral indignation — he suffered over society’s hypocrisies, our evils and our cowardice, and he wrote to get people arguing, to encourage an active reexamination of values. His plays, however, can turn stuffy and melodramatic in modern productions: living museum dioramas in which women in long skirts and men in frock coats howl about syphilis and scandal. But Herzog and Gold have cleared away any fustiness (which really lies not in Ibsen but in us) and have drawn out Enemy’s inherent muscularity.

Their two leads are also a real asset here, and not for their famous names. As the brothers locking horns at the play’s center — the principled Dr. Thomas Stockmann and the political animal Mayor Peter Stockmann — Jeremy Strong and Michael Imperioli both bring a vigorous contemporary affect to the material. You can feel the toughness and tension, the roiling potential energy, of their more modern characters flexing within David Zinn’s costumes, which land us softly in the 1880s without feeling rigid in their period accuracy. Just as Michael Shannon and Paul Sparks did with Waiting for Godot last fall, they find a uniquely American tone that, rather than creating dissonance, only highlights the play’s fundamental solidity. There’s a casual quality to Imperioli’s performance that becomes more and more insidious as the show goes on. His Peter Stockmann doesn’t like to raise his voice. He’s a man who wears power easily — who will shift and evade instinctively, nimbly, like a rodent or an insect, in order to maintain and increase it.

By contrast, the most striking element of Strong’s Dr. Stockmann is, perhaps surprisingly, not his forcefulness but his guilelessness. This isn’t a man who drives onto the stage in a bullheaded fury, already prepared to fight to the death for what’s right. This is an earnest, grounded, good-hearted scientist — a guy who loves his kids, is still grieving his beloved wife, has a sense of humor and a taste for hot toddies, and starts from a place of trust in his friends and hopefulness about human nature. “What is there to say?” he asks his daughter Petra (Victoria Pedretti) and their houseguests after revealing his discovery. The people, he’s confident, will “be glad to know the truth.”

What Dr. Stockmann has discovered is that their town’s much-celebrated public baths — a health resort that forms the basis of the local economy — are “utterly contaminated.” Pollution from nearby tanneries has seeped into the groundwater, flooding the baths with harmful bacteria. “It’s a massive health risk,” says Thomas, who intends to share the news with his neighbors — after which, naturally, the right steps will be taken. But he soon finds himself receiving his own brutal education in just how easily the truth can be beaten, tortured, and buried when it threatens those with money, power, and position.

As Thomas is cruelly awakened from his intrinsic faith in goodness and justice, An Enemy of the People takes on an allegorical quality. Like Everyman or Job, Dr. Stockmann is gradually abandoned and anathematized by almost everyone he trusts. Even the seemingly radical Hovstad (Caleb Eberhardt, compellingly torn between sincerity and self-interest) and Billing (Matthew August Jeffers) — who publish the local liberal newspaper — soon curdle toward him like cream left in the sun. Their associate, the local printer Aslaksen (expertly obsequious in the hands of Thomas Jay Ryan), has much to do with encouraging their treachery. “I always aim for moderation,” says Aslaksen, with a half-smile oily enough to fry potatoes. Herzog doesn’t need to hammer home the twinges of resonance in Ibsen’s text. We can see with painful clarity the fact that the greatest enemies to truth and right action won’t just come spouting hatred and wielding a pitchfork or a gun. They’ll arrive in nice suits, appealing to reason and civility, and they’ll wedge a foot in the door to let in the darkness, all while shaking their heads and wringing their hands, because isn’t it just too bad?