They didn't have our word for whistle-blower when Henrik Ibsen wrote "The Enemy of the People" in 1882. As this jagged fist of a revival proves with such ripping theatricality, however, just such a moral crusader -- bristling with noble idealism and, inevitably, tragicomic human frailties -- was very much a part of the psyche, the economy and the hypocrisy of the late 19th century.
Don't be put off by any grumbles about the conversational, tightened two-hour adaptation that the Manhattan Theatre Club uses for the rare Broadway production of this timely classic. Yes, British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz tosses off the occasional jarring anachronism -- "cash cow," "restraining order," etc.
But she, director Doug Hughes and this first-rate cast -- headed by Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas -- are true to both the playwright and to theatergoers hungry for a play as wise about human nature as it is entertaining. Ibsen himself was uncertain whether to call this a comedy or drama, noting it has "traits of comedy" but is "based on a serious idea."
And what an idea -- supposedly one far-reaching enough to have inspired "Jaws." Gaines plays a doctor who discovers that the poor town's lucrative new spas are polluted with bacteria from the tannery owned by the father (wonderfully played with old-cowboy menace by Michael Siberry) of his wife (Kathleen McNenny). Worse, the baths were built incorrectly by his brother (Thomas), the rigid and egomaniacal mayor and his rich cronies.
Hughes, in his most muscular, richly ambiguous work since "Doubt," revels in the conscious and unconscious duplicity of these characters. When Gaines first bursts into his cozy Norwegian home (swift-turning sets by John Lee Beatty), the doctor seems too flighty and self-dramatizing to be the evening's hero. Indeed, soon his disheveled, childlike quality folds deeply into the faults that derail his truth.
Thomas has fewer colors to explore as the villain, but they keep getting darker. Almost no one is safe from Ibsen's X-ray vision, not the muckraking journalist (John Procaccino), the radical (James Waterston), the union boss (Gerry Bamman) and, especially, the "people" so easily manipulated into turning their savior into their "enemy." Funny, in an eerie way, how the word "taxes" can turn a liberal majority into a mob.
WHAT "An Enemy of the People"
WHERE Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
INFO $67-$120; 212-239- 6200; telecharge.com
BOTTOM LINE Bristling, timely Ibsen