Fifteen years ago Charles Marowitz staged a Los Angeles Actors Theater production of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People in which Gerald Hiken portrayed the drama's crusading protagonist as a self-righteous prig who, in some ways, was more ignorant than the townspeople he presumed to enlighten. It made for the kind of subversive reading that inevitably occurs whenever a venerated work is turned on its head. Marowitz's adaptation suddenly made a classic unpredictable and, given the play's commendable ecological theme, delightfully infuriating, although from a box-office point of view I wouldn't recommend this revisionist approach for The Diary of Anne Frank or Bent.

The Royal National Theatre has come to Los Angeles for the only American staging of its mostly acclaimed version of Ibsen's play, and the results are far less compelling. From John Napier's merry-go-round set to Sir Ian McKellen's shameless mugging, director Trevor Nunn (Cats, Les Miserables, Sunset Boulevard) seems less the man in charge of this project than a person gleefully egging on his colleagues to their worst excesses. While Nunn does restrain himself from using the flight wires of his Peter Pan production here, there has seldom been a clearer example of more being less. By the time his Enemy concludes, three hours after the lights first go down, the audience is exhausted – not from being assaulted by ideas or emotions, but simply from having sat through it all.

You know the story: Dr. Tomas Stockmann (McKellen) discovers that the mineral waters of his Norwegian town's celebrated spa have been dangerously contaminated by a tannery. His confident attempts to sound an alarm are met with hostility from his brother, the mayor (Stephen Moore), and are sabotaged by a spineless newspaper editor (Paul Higgins). When the doctor, naive to the ways of commerce and politics, presses his case, he is sullenly rebuffed by the townspeople who, believing their economic salvation lies with the spa's uninterrupted operation, turn on him as an ignorant, vindictive rabble.

An Enemy of the People was published near the end of 1882 and staged shortly thereafter, just before Karl Marx died, and is one of those classics that seems tirelessly contemporary. It has a strong environmental theme, examines the role of the individual in opposition to the mass (indeed, it forces us to consider whether the mass is a collective intelligence or a brutal mob) and offers a harsh lesson on the economics of compromise. And, as far as I can tell, it is the first coherent theatrical expression of what might be called progressive or Left sentiments.

On the other hand, Enemy was a poison apple intended for mainstream liberals of Ibsen's time, and today the very title summons for us the tyranny of 20th-century political correctness, carrying with it a whiff of the gulag. Somewhere, among the yellowing political tracts of the radical 1970s, lies buried a Maoist slogan that proclaimed, “It is not the hero, the individual, but the broad masses of people who are the makers of history.” A generation ago this encomium gave coffeehouse Red Guards a way to idealize an abstraction like “the broad masses” while also providing them a brush with which to tar fellow leftists.

This sentiment is mortally at odds with Ibsen, and yet – sign of the times – China's Central Experimental Modern Drama Theater presented the play in 1996 to show a way, according to the Beijing Review, “to deal with the common problems of environmental pollution, and provide the intelligentsia with an understanding of how best to maintain their true sentiments when confronting vulgar cultural tendencies of society.”

All of which italicizes the fact that regardless of Ibsen's original intent, his play can be claimed by both ends and the middle of the political spectrum; the trick, however, is not to say Enemy belongs to one side or another, but to discover in it challenges to whatever our own cherished positions happen to be – challenges that must be answered.

Nunn, using a free adaptation by Christopher “I do not speak Norwegian” Hampton, tries to juice up Dr. Stockmann so that he is neither heroic martyr nor meddling nudge – only to end up with a moral black hole with the nattering McKellen in its center. By rights, this position should be held by the mayor, the banal, myopic hack who would sacrifice his townspeople's health for the sake of economic “progress” and to top his brother in some middle-aged game of sibling rivalry. Moore, resembling a silver-haired Chicago alderman, does well in the role of this civic leader so amiably familiar with the quid pro quos of provincial statecraft; he seems to be fending off a heart attack when forced to admit that the spa's economic benefits have not only enriched property owners, but helped the town's poor as well.

Moore's Peter Stockmann is frightening not because of his politics but because he is so ordinary and anonymous – two traits of which no one has ever accused Ian McKellen. Whatever else you want to say about McKellen, he certainly brings with him a refreshing sense of narcissism and self-promotion – he is, in fact, the only cast member to list his own Web site in the program notes. Theatergoers who remember his steely performance in Richard III when it came to UCLA six years ago will wonder where McKellen's discipline went when they see his Dr. Stockmann. He's a restless creature constantly twitching and flailing about to emphasize a point, or to merely upstage fellow cast members. Watching his manic gestures and listening to his quavering accusations (delivered in a voice that answers the question of what it must be like to hear Katharine Hepburn gargling salt water), you begin to hope there's a real doctor in the house, one with the antidote for Tourette's syndrome.

But McKellen isn't the only thing that won't stay put. John Napier, who designed sets for many a Nunn staging, as well as for Starlight Express and Miss Saigon, has built a revolving stage dominated by a penile tower suggesting any number of meanings. Portentous yard arms stand nearby while silhouetted hills, frowned upon by migrating clouds, huddle in the distance. The ground is occupied by austere, wood-boned rooms and a swirling Dickensian ensemble that seems to have wandered in from a touring company of Nicholas Nickleby, another Nunn production. The overall effect is like visiting some theme-park fishing village, the kind you see at Ports O' Call or Universal CityWalk.

This seldom-performed work reads as urgently and crisply as when first written – who would have thought that a play from cold Norway could remind us of global warming, just one of the modern issues we might think of watching this drama. The shame of N.T.'s Enemy of the People is not merely that Ibsen's provocative themes are gutted, but that nothing takes their place. After all, what's the point of taking a work apart if you can't put it back together in some different shape?

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