Richard Thomas does everything but twirl his mustache as the bogeyman in the Broadway revival of “An Enemy of the People.”
That’s because he doesn’t have a mustache to twirl. The other accouterments of villainy -- black top hat and bowtie framing a lip-curling sneer, cape and cane wielded with menacing flourishes -- are all accounted for in Doug Hughes’s clipped vaudeville of a production.
Thomas (the reassuring voice of Mercedes-Benz, if you’re too young to remember “The Waltons”) plays Peter Stockmann, the mayor of a Norwegian village whose newly upgraded mineral baths hold out the promise of prosperity.
Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play, shrunk and simplified in a new version by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, pits the pro-business mayor against a doctor who has confirmed irrefutably that the waters of the spa have been turned toxic by effluence from a nearby tannery. Only by starting over from scratch can the waters be purified.
The bad-news doctor happens to be the mayor’s brother, Thomas (Boyd Gaines). It would be understating to say the fraternal bond is stretched as Hughes has the two actors resort to much hollering, face-reddening and threat-making in this Manhattan Theatre Club production.
The plot may remind you of “Jaws” -- don’t let that baby-munching shark force us to close the beaches! -- and Ibsen’s play has indeed been cited as a source.
But there’s more to “An Enemy of the People” than Hughes and Lenkiewicz seem to be concerned with. Thomas’s shocking transformation from self-congratulating hero to democracy-renouncing demagogue is rendered incomprehensible by the compression. Insisting that the majority is always wrong and needs to be led by the enlightened minority, he’s a proto-47-percenter.
Thomas, whose silent-film expressionism might be better suited to “Chaplin,” makes it difficult for the rest of the company to do much more than respond in kind. That’s especially true for Gaines, a fine actor reduced to much screeching and over-gesticulating of his own.
John Lee Beatty has provided his usual comfy-looking premises, lit in hues of gold by Ben Stanton. Catherine Zuber’s colorful costumes are formally correct and nail every character.
Theatergoers looking for a Cliffs Notes version of a modern classic may be grateful for the two-hour show, but I doubt the Norwegian would.
Through Nov. 11 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. Information: +1- 212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: **
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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