Climate activists disrupting Jeremy Strong was the best part of the play

NEW YORK — Real life can be stranger and more thrilling than fiction, particularly when the line between the two dissolves at spitting distance. When rousing protesters stood and approached the stage at Thursday’s performance of “An Enemy of the People” at Circle in the Square Theatre, the demonstration seemed less like a disruption than an otherwise stolid revival delivering an invigorating coup.

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Jeremy Strong was standing on a bartop, a self-righteous-rebel posture not unfamiliar to “Succession” scion Kendall Roy, whose notoriety has helped turn Henrik Ibsen’s somewhat stiff 1882 morality tale into a hot Broadway ticket. Strong’s character, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, was about to earn his title moniker, using a town-hall-style meeting to condemn the soon-to-open local baths for spewing poisoned water.

Cue the climate activists: Affiliated with a group known as Extinction Rebellion, they drew an explicit connection between the small-town Norwegian drama and an urgent global crisis, shouting “the oceans are rising and will swallow this city” and “no theater on a dead planet!” Some actors howled back in character while staff scrambled to end the interruption. Watch the videos and you’ll see that almost no one in the audience, including myself, seemed surprised.

That’s because Amy Herzog’s new version of the text, and this in-the-round staging by her husband Sam Gold, was already aiming to blur distinctions between past and present. (Patrons had just been invited onstage for free shots of Linie Aquavit, during a brief intermission that seemed like sponcon for Norway.)

The boldfaced themes of Ibsen’s parable — the delicacy of truth in the face of mob mentality, the spread of misinformation by the press, the prizing of money at the expense of nature — hardly need updating.

But Herzog, who adapted last season’s acclaimed revival of “A Doll’s House,” also refashions Ibsen’s story with a streamlined, contemporary vernacular. In crisp, plain-spoken dialogue, the action clocks in at just under two hours, with some characters excised — Thomas is now a widower — and others beefed up, most notably his daughter Petra (an appealing Victoria Pedretti), whose warmth and integrity lend the proceedings some heart.

There is only a modest level of passion to the brief courting of Petra by the newspaper editor Hovstad (a solid Caleb Eberhardt), who flips from her father’s strongest ally to his most outspoken foe, refusing to publish Thomas’s water-contamination study once it becomes clear the news could lead to the town’s financial ruin.

But the production’s puzzling lack of fire (despite beautiful, lantern-rich lighting design by Isabella Byrd) originates with the good doctor himself. Strong carries Thomas’s convictions like a loose hand on a briefcase, maintaining a placid composure even as he makes a deadly discovery and then gets battered by betrayals trying to expose it. Famous for his extreme-sport acting approach, Strong seems alive to every moment onstage but not fully implicated in their consequences — even when the latter leave him curled up on the floor.

The gears of Ibsen’s logic turn at a modest pace — how does Thomas not immediately get that fixing the water problem would be expensive? — allowing audiences to jump ahead and watch the characters catch up. Dramatizing the delayed epiphanies of a supposedly brilliant man is tough, and Strong takes an understated approach. Ditto to his indignant oration calling his haters an ignorant and complacent horde. After the blazing cries of real protesters, Strong’s delivery seemed all the more subdued.

The pairing of Strong opposite Michael Imperioli, making his Broadway debut as Peter, Thomas’s brother and the mayor who leads the charge against him, lends the revival a certain cable-drama prestige. But “The White Lotus” star’s bottled-storm-cloud intensity spreads thin onstage, and the fraught fraternity between the rival siblings is only intermittently believable.

Gold’s attention to texture and tactile detail asks audiences to lean in; the play’s early scenes foster an engrossing intimacy later blasted apart by civic controversy. From the delicate border on Petra’s woolen shawl (costumes are by David Zinn) to the Rosemaling patterns painted on the white set (by the design collective Dots), the production creates a seductive and convincing world in the realm of the senses. But it took a startling ambush to jolt the moral of the story into the moment.

An Enemy of the People, through June 16 at Circle in the Square Theatre in New York. 2 hours.


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