Review: Ann Dowd's Fearless Battle Through a Choose-Your-Own Enemy of the People
Dowd stars in Robert Icke's new Ibsen adaptation, which asks the audience to vote on the direction of the story.
To go public with data that has the potential to save lives, or to keep it quiet so as not to create panic? To listen to the science or to play the political game? If theater's purpose is to hold a mirror up to nature, then Robert Icke's new adaptation of Ibsen's Enemy of the People — running at the cavernous Park Avenue Armory through August 8 — might as well be hung on your bathroom door.
Icke's rowdy play is both a vehicle for Emmy winner Ann Dowd (Aunt Lydia on The Handmaid's Tale), who plays all the characters, and society's terrible decisions, many of which are on ample display over the course of 90 minutes. Dowd's primary role is Dr. Joan Stockman, a scientist who discovers that her town's cherished attraction — a natural hot spring that has become a tourist destination — is contaminated. As cases of lead poisoning spread like wildfire amongst the townspeople and visitors, Joan is locked in a battle of wits with her brother Peter, who happens to be the Mayor. Should the community's prosperity come before the well-being of the citizenry? Well, that's for us to decide.
And decide we do. Icke's play is a choose-your-own-adventure story, where spectators, seated at conference tables tricked out with computers, vote on the direction the plot. It begins easily enough: are Joan and her family drinking coffee or tea at breakfast? Coffee easily won out the night I saw it. But then the harder questions reared their ugly heads: should Joan's reports be released to the public, or should they go to the board for approval first? And who is the real enemy? Dr. Joan or Mayor Peter?
Visions of the Flint water crisis, and, of course, the ongoing Covid pandemic, dance in our heads over the course of Enemy of the People, and even after a year of watching politics beat science into a bloody pulp, the voting results, binary as they are, were uncomfortably close to our reality, almost to the point of laughter. In a world filled with fictional corruption, one that we had the power to mold into a righteous society that looks after its own, the perverse side of human nature still won the day.
That's not entirely surprising, since that dark side is what makes for crackling drama, which the audience, deprived of live performance as they've been, knows well. Icke, a canny writer who takes a bulldozer to the classics, does too. While his script is a little bit too novelistic (a downside of many solo experiences), and the material a little too expansive to be conveyed by one fearless performer, I had a great time watching the moral gray areas play out in the hands of the wealthy Upper East Siders who cheered for the supermarket workers every night until they were able to flee to Sag Harbor. I can all but guarantee that the pearl-clutchers among us will find this to be a very unpleasant experience.
Unfortunately, the deck is so stacked against Dowd that Enemy of the People is a losing battle for her from start to finish. She's great, don't get me wrong, but there's an air of defeat in her eyes from the second she appears. You see it in her face as she glances down at the not-so-strategically placed teleprompters, and in her voice as she instructs us to put headphones on so we can actually hear her. Asking her to shoulder the burden of not just memorizing two versions of the play, but filling the airplane hangar of a theater, would be a unwinnable war for anyone.
Scenic designer Hildegard Bechtler confines Dowd to a catwalk at the center of the theater, where only one side of the audience can see her at a time (two billboard-size screens are on either side of the auditorium for everyone else's viewing displeasure). Sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman forces her to contend with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?-style suspense music. Icke, as both playwright and director, and his team have done this excellent character actor, who does have some enormously moving and awfully exhilarating moments, a tremendous disservice.
After all, if you have to watch a screen to see the show and don headphones to hear it, you might as well have just stayed home. And that's something we all can agree on.