Review: A Battle of the HBO Stars in Rousing Enemy of the People on Broadway

Jeremy Strong and Michael Imperioli lead the cast of this Ibsen revival, adapted by Amy Herzog.

Victoria Pedretti, Caleb Eberhardt & Jeremy Strong in An Enemy of the People Photo by Emilio Madrid
Victoria Pedretti, Caleb Eberhardt, and Jeremy Strong in An Enemy of the People at the Circle in the Square Theatre
(© Emilio Madrid)

Two of Peak TV’s finest are going head-to-head at the Circle in the Square Theatre. In one corner is Jeremy “Kendall Roy” Strong. In the other is Michael “Christopher Moltisanti” Imperioli. They prowl around the shallow stage with a glowering ferocity, animals in a cage each expecting the other to strike first. They are nigh perfect to play the opposing Stockmann brothers in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, now being given a zippy revival adapted by playwright Amy Herzog and directed by her husband, Sam Gold.

Strong and Imperioli imbue their characters with the same intensely toxic masculine energy that they displayed in the gigs that made them household names, Succession and The Sopranos. Toxic is the operative word here, in more ways than one. Strong is Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the forthright medical supervisor of a local health spa who discovers that the water source is polluted. Imperioli is Mayor Peter Stockmann, who is determined to suppress the evidence that his sibling is hellbent on publishing in the local paper, to ensure the continued financial well-being of the town. At first, the local liberals are on Thomas’s side, but they desert him one by one, bowing to political pressure.

As with her work on A Doll’s House last season, Herzog’s new script is approachable and welcoming for first timers, a fast-clipped retelling that excises the florid turns of phrase that tire contemporary ears, while bringing Ibsen’s political awareness to the fore. Certain edits intensify the emotional arc. Thomas is now a widower whose loyal and strong schoolteacher daughter (Victoria Pedretti of Netflix’s You making a very impressive stage debut) also loses everything as she becomes one of the very few to stand by him. In doing so, Herzog expands the story to explore not only what happens to a figure at the center of a reputation-ending controversy, but how their next of kin is forced to deal with the fallout, too.

Michael Imperioli in An Enemy of the People Photo by Emilio Madrid
Michael Imperioli in An Enemy of the People at the Circle in the Square Theatre
(© Emilio Madrid)

Gold has backed his leading actors with stage stalwarts who deliver in spades. David Patrick Kelly is wry and condescending as Thomas’s antagonistic father-in-law, Thomas Jay Ryan is groan-inducingly spineless as Property Committee chairman Aslaksen, Matthew August Jeffers brings drollery to newspaper man Billing, and Caleb Eberhardt is particularly chilling as editor Hovstad, whose opinion of Thomas and his efforts changes in the blink of an eye. Alan Trong agreeably rounds out the principal cast as Captain Horster, another figure put through the wringer for his support of Thomas’s research.

Those expecting the manic energy of “Christopha” will be surprised by Imperioli’s grippingly restrained Peter, going to show that the most imposing kind of malevolence is the kind that doesn’t feel a need to announce itself. It burns in his eyes, and that’s what makes it all the scarier. Conversely, Strong, a veteran of Herzog’s plays and various Gold productions before a wider viewership took note, uses the four seasons of self-aggrandizement he honed as the “eldest boy” to great effect, creating a compelling, concentrated portrayal of Thomas’s single-mindedness. The two of them are just great — thrilling, in fact.

There’s a primal element to their performances that extends to the physical world. In addition to contemporary lighting, Isabella Byrd gorgeously utilizes candles and oil lamps hanging across the stage to cast shadows within the Stockmann home. Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design is all natural — if the actors are miked, there’s no way to tell — and there’s one brilliantly effective instance of using a concertina’s bellows to create the sound of wind whistling. The design collective dots create a well-appointed runway stage that cuts straight through the auditorium. The actors are surrounded, and we all feel like we’re on top of them.

While the ideas Ibsen presents will never go out of style, seeing this production so soon after the fourth anniversary of the Broadway shutdown invites comparison between the Stockmanns and Fauci and Trump. Fortunately for us, Herzog and Gold, working together for the first time, resist making present-day parallels too obvious (wisely, David Zinn doesn’t dress Imperioli in a bright blue suit and orange pompadour; his sepia-toned outfits are distinctly 19th century). As a professional audience member living at a time of lowest-common-denominator theater — where everything is spelled out and obvious — I greatly appreciated how this production trusts that we’re smart enough to draw our own conclusions. I know who I would side with, but what about you?

Katie Broad, David Patrick Kelly & Victoria Pedretti in An Enemy of the People Photo by Emilio Madrid
A scene from An Enemy of the People on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre
(© Emilio Madrid)

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An Enemy of the People

Final performance: June 23, 2024