Broadway review

Ann Dowd goes from ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ villain Aunt Lydia to ‘Enemy of the People’

The Daily Beast

July 1, 2021

Ann Dowd, Aunt Lydia in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” stars in an epic reimagining of Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People.” And “The Watering Hole” investigates race, memory…and piano dancing.

At the cavernous Park Avenue Armory’s Drill Hall, Ann Dowd has not entirely given up elements of the spirit of Aunt Lydia—as any Handmaid’s Tale fan, as one of my theater buddies was, will soon realize. Dowd is the only person on stage in a commandingly performed but puzzlingly composed and paced remolding of Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People by Robert Icke (to Aug. 8).

Here, Icke has updated to the piece to the present day, its setting the small American town of Weston Falls dependent on the tourist income generated by its spa, and whose water supply may be dangerously contaminated by lead.

Dowd is both Joan, the railing scientist who wants the town to wake up to the danger she perceives in its midst, and Peter, Joan’s brother, the mayor who questions her credentials and her motives. One booms, one is quiet. We hear more of Joan than Peter, and Dowd animates the text with unpredictable detonations. We lean forward to imbibe each word.

The social distancing between our tables was its own striking design feature, each pod illuminated by a globe of light on each table. The Armory is, of course, huge—and some of our group of five loved Hildegard Brechtler’s epic construction of walkways and ramps that Dowd wanders along, and which, along with a mapped floor, stands for the geography of Weston Falls. Others did not, feeling that Dowd was lost when not near or in immediate sightline. For some of us it was an audacious use of space. For others, it was a strange waste of space.

The solution to her trekking of the Drill Hall and the distance from us has been to erect giant screens, so Dowd is never out of sight, but if there’s one thing this critic is very much over right now, it is the use of screens in theater. I felt this before the pandemic but most especially after a year and a half of Zoom. Even when Dowd was a speck in the Armory gloam, I insisted my eyes follow her.

But once the sibling conflict has been set up, along with the play’s overarching themes of politics versus science, democracy, and the seeds and hideous blooming of collective prejudice, Dowd must keep debating with herself as brother and sister, and a wry third person narrator the same things. Just as Trump did in calling us “the enemy of the people,” the media is castigated for what it does in reporting what it reports.

Periodically, the audience is asked to vote (there are screens and buttons on the tables we sit at), and while this supposedly could change the direction of the narrative, the questions do not feel as critical as the play poses them as. Indeed, there were a number of times during Enemy of the People—where lines have been blurred about the goodness and intentions of brother and sister—where this critic wanted the play to ask us a really tricky moral question, and it did not.

Of course, the ghosts of scientists and COVID, Trump’s demagoguery, the meaning and power of our votes (the night before the Supreme Court ruled in favor of voting restrictions), and the Jan. 6 insurrection hung meaningfully, and Icke’s writing is at its best and wrong-footing when we are led to think one thing about a character only to see their weakness or questionable behavior in the next beat.

The play eventually asks us who is the enemy of the people, Joan or Peter, without offering us a gnarlier third option: both of them, in different ways, and maybe a fourth option, we, the people, as our voting that night helped lead the town of Weston Falls to ruin.

Some of the most effective parts of the play are not about the hot issues of our moment but in tender pieces of exposition as when the narrator imagines time slipping forward, in Joan’s life, for example, and the as-yet-unknown endurance of her lifelong friendship with a doctor, Mona.

Dowd more than holds one’s attention for 90 minutes, and our eye can also rove over the design and Natasha Chivers’ atmospheric lighting of the Armory itself. This Enemy of the People is a spectacle welcoming back New York’s theater-hungry. An hour or so later, after the show had ended, our group of five was still chewing over the many issues it raised. We didn’t reach a conclusion, but we remained dazzled in our confusion.

I will not mis-sell it. It’s not the same scale as the one in Big, but the most fun you can have at reawakening New York theater right now is in a dressing room of the Signature Theater on 42nd Street. There, on the floor, is a plastic piano keyboard, on which we are encouraged to jump, lightly leap, do whatever we want—and make music just as Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia did in FAO Schwarz in the movie Big.

This writer didn’t manage to master “Heart and Soul” and “Chopsticks” with their sprightliness. I bished, bashed, and jumped like an apoplectic kangaroo and loved every second of Christina Anderson and Miranda Haymon’s “Ebb and Flow”—and was extremely disappointed when our guide came in to tell me it was time for the next room. (The theater asks if we mind being videotaped as we do this. Apologies if anyone ever sees my ridiculousness.)

The Watering Hole (to Aug. 8), “an immersive and collaborative theater installation,” has been created by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage and Haymon, and features the stage, sound, film, and design works of a group of artists of color.

Nottage has said the goal was “to create a collaborative piece of theatre that disrupts the notion of how and where and why storytelling can happen, that invites theatre artists of color to bring the entirety of our imaginations into conversation with each other and see the ways in which we can tell our stories outside the frameworks that are generally imposed upon us.

“The inspiration and organizing principle of The Watering Hole came about when we, as a collective, began talking about what Signature means to us, and in particular that lobby—how important that communal space has been to us over the years. What does it mean to have lost that nexus point that gives us the opportunity to gather and see disparate people coming together?”

We are split into groups of four, and head off into all areas of the theater—on stage, backstage, and in its pipe-lined innards to experience an intriguing range of installations all themed around water. The light-heartedness of the piano in the dressing room shouldn’t deceive us—the various pieces, linked by the theme of water and its physical and symbolic properties, feature meditations on racism, colonialism, memory, love, life, and death.

The mission of the piece, and a future mission for all theater, is laid out clearly at the beginning, on a floor to ceiling manifesto that reads: “We have a desire for a theater that can sustain the complexity & the multiplicity of our desires. Water for me conjures healing and stillness. Calm. Healing. Thirst. Unbolted. Spectacular and free.”

The arresting, beautifully shot short film “Wings and Rings” features the handsome actor Ryan J. Haddad in a pair of red swimming trunks immersing himself in a swimming pool and remembering the love of his grandma. As we sit on a different stage, we can feel the heat of the streets rising in the beautiful monologue “Spray Cap” by Matt Barbot and Amith Chandrashaker, with the voice of Liza Colon-Zayas. This recognizes how weird we are feeling after a year-plus of isolation and being inside, as it beseeches us to get the hell out of the house.

Elsewhere, water flows through videos and installations of boats, and there is even a moment to play with beach balls in a tiny beach with neon lights, designed by Campbell Silverstein and Charly Evon Simpson. At the beginning and end of the 80-minute tour-meets-treasure hunt, we are invited to leave notes in boats—the first time for the incarcerated, and the second time for ourselves. That final deed may make us linger longer than we expect.

On the way out we pass the manifesto again, its mission for a future of a diverse theater resoundingly clear: “Theaters need to practice what their artists preach.”