Let the record show: Boyd Gaines closed the 2011-12 Manhattan Theatre Club season at Broadway's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in July by playing a brother in the politics-minded play The Columnist, and on Sept. 27 he opened the 2012-13 MTC season in the same venue playing another brother in another political morality play An Enemy of the People.
Gaines is back, center-stage, the upright paragon of truth and integrity, brooking no argument to the contrary from his brother or his fellow man, taking such a hard-line, inflexible stance he turns into the title role in Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People.
A ticked-off Ibsen wrote this play in the early 1880s after his Ghosts rubbed Victorian morality the wrong way and was deemed scandalous (not a good thing back then), so he was not into cutting much slack for those of differing views and not above letting his hero carry the cross alone, looking forlornly into a hopeful sunset where someday someone might understand he did the right thing.
"It's said," Gaines shared at the after-party held across the street from the Friedman at the Copacabana, "in A Doll's House, he insulted the right wing. In Ghosts, he insulted the left wing, and, in this play, he insults everyone."
Gaines — who could be billed by his full name for this particular assignment: Boyd Payne Gaines — plays Dr. Thomas Stockmann, chief medical officer at the Baths, which locals have created to lull tourists to their small coastal town in southern Norway. The future looks rosy for the denizens, but their clientele seem under the weather, prompting the very good doctor to his microscope and the discovery that the Baths are actually a cesspool in dire need of immediate condemnation. He's playing to empty houses, of course — a whole town of them. The most brutal head-butting is with his brother, Peter (Richard Thomas), who, being the town mayor, chief constable and chairman of the Baths committee, has his vested and invested interest to protect.
"I've always loved the play, and I particularly love Rebecca Lenkiewicz's adaptation," Gaines said. "It was written for a production in London in 2008. It's very lean and very muscular. Richard and I did this reading of it, and we all went 'Wow! This plays like a house afire.' We immediately had a connection. I'm thrilled he wanted to do it."
There have been 10 (!) Broadway productions of An Enemy of the People — but none in 41 years. The last was done in 1971 at the Vivian Beaumont with Stephen Elliott and Philip Bosco — and, before that in 1950 at the Broadhurst with Fredric March and Morris Carnovsky. "I think a lot of people don't know the piece at all," said Gaines, "either that or know it from high school or they know the Arthur Miller adaptation which is very black and white and very much of the McCarthy period, but this one is much more free-flowing."
Miller's screen adaptation starred an extremely ill-suited, heavily hirsute Steve McQueen — not your intellectual type of hero — and the rest was deemed unreleasable, although it didn't manage to escape for a few "curio" engagements.
Although it did give her pause, Miller's name didn't kept Lenkiewicz from her translation. "You just have to forget and begin again," she said with a sigh. She has also done a Strindberg and another Ibsen (Ghosts) as well as her own plays in England, including Her Naked Skin, about the suffragette movement (clearly), which played the Olivier Theatre in London. But she remains keen on Ibsen. "Ghosts was a play that had to be written, but everyone went mad about it. I think Ibsen is an incredible storyteller. I think where he takes you from beginning to end is stunning, just in terms of shift and change. I think he's bold."
For her 44th birthday, MTC's Lynne Meadow and Barry Grove gave Lenkiewicz the gift of Broadway, and they have followed that up by commissioning her to write a play on Madame Curie (territory that playwright Alan Alda has also explored).
Sam Waterston, who has been lording majestically over "The Newsroom" on HBO this summer, showed up like clockwork at one of his youngster's openings — that of son James Waterston, who plays Billing, who wants to see the town's leadership pay for their mistakes. "Bless his heart," he said of his character, "he wants to topple the kingdom — and then he's also a bit of a pragmatist. It's really fun to play with."
Plus: he's first to speak in both acts — in effect, robustly calling the play to order. How does he do it? "You get yourself a nice big emotion and run on that stage. That's really it. Then, the writing starts taking you around like a ping-pong ball."
Veteran director Doug Hughes was very helpful, he said. "I wrote on his card that I have so much respect for him as a director and I so enjoy his company. He sets a sort of tone where you can play around and just take chances. It's all civilized."
The big challenge in this play came in casting it correctly, according to Hughes. "To find somebody who can do justice to Thomas Stockmann is a big one on the list, and we've certainly found a great actor who utterly connected to the part — somebody you'll take the ride with, foibles and all. I adored Boyd. And Richard — I think very often that mayor is a stereotypically villainous creature, and I think, in Richard's hands, he's a human being who's doing what he believes in the right thing to do.
"The translation is the greatest secret ingredient. The fact that it's so fleet, it's so spare, it reveals the play as a comedy. It's a deadly serious comedy — and a political thriller, but it has a comic curve to it. It's a play about how we govern ourselves and why we have a very hard time doing it. It's about the foibles and the perils of democracy. I think it's a good play for an election year—or, really, for any year."
John Procaccino has a good time as Hovstad, the newspaper titan who loves to make a hard stand on an issue until the ground starts to shake under him. "I have so much fun playing this guy because he's a character with so many different levels going through him," he admitted with delight. "I feel passionate about what I say to Dr. Stockmann, but I'm also very concerned with covering my own fanny when the tables get turned. I'm a man who really can't be trusted, but I'm sincere in my desires. I have a blast. In terms of having fun, it's the best character in the play."
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