‘An Enemy of the People’ Review: An Actorly, Broadway Face-Off Between Jeremy Strong and Michael Imperioli

At various points in “An Enemy of the People,” the Jeremy Strong-led production of Henrik Ibsen’s classic, the greatest entertainment comes from watching the faces opposite you. That’s not a critique of director Sam Gold’s work. It’s hard to think of a show that could put to better use the unique in-the-round structure of Circle in the Square Theatre than this one. In the story, society closes in on and consumes an innocent man; in the staging, we the audience are society.

Strong plays Dr. Thomas Stockmann, a widower who’s landed back home in what’s intended to be a cozy sinecure, acting as the chief physician for the town’s newly-opened spa. (As adapted by playwright Amy Herzog, the script has been substantially altered; Ibsen’s original Thomas, for instance, is married.) Both man and town have seen better days, but both, too, are buoyed by optimism: the doctor, with his daughter Petra (a luminous Victoria Pedretti), opens his home to the town’s strata of young and open-minded folk to take his mind off of things. And everyone is hopeful that the spa will bring in tourists, and their money.

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These early moments of flickering possibility are conjured well, and a sharp contrast is established between Thomas’ heedless self-belief and the shrewd pragmatism of his brother, the town’s mayor. As played by Michael Imperioli, Peter Stockmann has a set jaw and a majestically tufted head of hair; having come to prominence as a young man ultimately too naive and impulsive for the mob on “The Sopranos,” Imperioli has aged into the suavity, and the assured menace, of a don.

The distinction between them is quickly heightened by the results of scientific tests that Thomas has commissioned. The water in the spa is contaminated with bacterial runoff. Thomas feels something like excitement to have his suspicions confirmed — for, knowing this, action can be taken to reroute the water away from the contaminant and save lives. And Peter sees both a threat (shutting down the spa will allow other nearby towns the time to build their own baths) and, in Thomas’ outsider status and inherent vulnerabilities, an opening.

It’s a duel that pits earnestness against shamelessness — and if the outcome to that faceoff seems predictable from countless examples in our own world, it’s no less engaging to watch. The community’s turn against Thomas has the logic of a nightmare; the newspaper’s editor (Caleb Eberhardt) is eager to publish Thomas’ findings, until he suddenly isn’t. (Eberhardt does a spectacular job selling both sides of this tricky turn.) The guests who noshed on Thomas’ roast beef and guzzled his liquor suddenly are a lot less convivial. And the veneer of fraternal understanding between Thomas and Peter melts away.

The brothers represent the two poles of the production, and are played in fantastic counterpoint: Strong plays Thomas’ continued misunderstanding of the mess he’s in less as delusion than tragedy, never allowing the character’s dignity to slip even as he’s physically attacked. And Imperioli has a sharklike instinct, an apex predator’s ability to find the weakness and go for it. (In his performance, too, lies a thrum of frustration: Had his brother simply accepted his place in society, Peter wouldn’t have had to destroy him.) Their battle comes to a head in a stunning trial sequence (already known from an online video of a recent interruption of a performance interrupted by climate change protestors). With the lights up, a town meeting shifts gears into a trial of sorts — one in which Thomas, who had sought to protect his fellow man, must defend himself, and does not know how, if the truth is not enough.

The spare stage doesn’t just grant us a clear view of our fellow townspeople — those who are, like us, watching Thomas flail. (The last production I saw at Circle in the Square, the 2022 revival of “American Buffalo,” had a purposefully cluttered stage, so much so that my eyes never traveled to the seats opposite.) It provides Strong opportunities to stomp righteously, at one point during the trial traversing a bar in order to quite literally have the high ground. At the first act break, the actor poses in a spotlight for a long moment, seemingly basking in the knowledge that his decision is correct; his back was to my section of the theater, so all I saw were rectitudinously squared shoulders, and then the shadow they cast.

He was not to remain as physically steady. Last season’s Ibsen, “A Doll’s House” (also adapted by Herzog), dwarfed its stars on the stage and kept lead performer Jessica Chastain largely motionless, a striking comment on Nora Helmer’s feelings of helplessness and captivity. Chastain, mic’d, spoke in a whisper. But Strong conveys his own lack of power by thrashing against his limitations. It’s a big physical performance by an actor best known for a performance (as Kendall Roy on “Succession”) that was buttoned-up until it wasn’t, exploding into tears and rage. He accomplishes something similar here, with a performance that’s big but well-calibrated. One moment in which Strong emerges, late in the show, took my breath away, and yet in memory doesn’t feel like a stunt.

Part of what makes the performance work, in this context, is that we feel for him — even as it’s us, notionally, who’ve put him there. The script takes pains to emphasize the contemporary nature of Thomas and Peter’s conflict; late in the story, contemplating a potential escape across the Atlantic, Thomas declares that “in America, we won’t have to worry about” weaponized ignorance. It’s a laugh line, of course.

And it’s us, here in America, watching every incremental moment of Thomas’ loss of reputation. At the performance I attended, one onstage “juror,” brought up from the audience, couldn’t contain her amusement at where she’d found herself, flicking her gaze between Strong and Imperioli as though she were watching tennis. Her avidity added some dimension to Gold’s vision of a world in which justice is meted out to those who speak most eloquently and power redounds to those who are already powerful. Imperioli played the smoother speaker, so he won the battle of attention.

As entertaining as it was, though, to watch ourselves, and as thematically rich as it seems to be implicated in something, there’s an element of the adaptation that lets all involved off the hook. Thomas is plainly correct, but he also pleads his case in sympathetic and warm terms, in order to win over those audience members who may not want to watch not just one but two unlikable brothers. It’s only once the battle is clearly slipping away from him that he starts to lose it.

An “Enemy” in which Strong had the moral advantage but was, say, annoying about it, or brusque, or purposefully alienating, would be one that’s more intriguingly unsettled, and would leave you staring into the seats across the stage a bit more urgently. This production has much to recommend it, and Strong in particular should return to the stage as often as he can. But it’s hard not to feel as though this “Enemy of the People,” in which as rootable as possible a hero is ground down by the forces of evil, ended up presenting an opportunity for the audience to put themselves on trial, and then, with a sigh of relief, exonerate themselves.

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