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A divided town and politics vs. science: Michael Imperioli on why his play resonates

Michael Imperioli and Jeremy Strong star in <em>An Enemy Of The People</em> on Broadway.
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Michael Imperioli and Jeremy Strong star in An Enemy Of The People on Broadway.

If you've watched The Sopranos, you know actor Michael Imperioli as Christopher Moltisanti, a New Jersey mobster.

If you've watched season two of White Lotus, you know him as the middle-aged man traveling to Sicily with his elderly father and young adult son.

Now, Imperioli is making his Broadway debut in An Enemy of the People. But as he tells it, it's also a return of sorts.

"There's a bit of magic to Broadway, you know. Going to see Broadway plays when I was a kid was a lot of the catalyst for me wanting to become an actor," he told NPR.

This adaptation of the 1882 Henrik Ibsen play has clear relevance to the world today, nearly 150 years after it was written. Imperioli plays a small-town mayor whose brother, a doctor played by Jeremy Strong, warns him there's dangerous bacteria lurking in the local water. The announcement could save lives, but it could also doom the town.

He spoke to NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer about the modern day parallels, what it's like acting in an intimate theatre, and why he thinks the story connects with audiences.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

Michael Imperioli: This small town has had an economic upswing because of these natural mineral springs that they're building — these resorts — and they're just in the beginning of it. And it's just starting to be a boon to the whole town: it's creating jobs, people are making money, and it's about to kind of blow up and be really great. And a lot of money has been invested to build some more resorts and hotels.

And this discovery that my brother makes, that there's bacteria, and his suggestions on how to fix it would basically destroy the town. It would ruin the reputation, it would cause economic suffering and hardship, people might become homeless, go hungry. My character's job is very tricky, because this kind of science — bacteria and things like that — was very new in the 1880s.

Sacha Pfeiffer: Right. People are joking about invisible creatures and laughing it off, like, "What is this guy talking about?"

Imperioli: Yeah. So we don't know much about it. So like, we're going to stake everything on this? Well, what if the bacteria goes away tomorrow, you know what I mean? The science is so new, how can we risk the wellbeing of the town and the people on a big question mark. But my brother is gung ho about it and saying no, we need to warn the people immediately because it's an immediate danger. And that's the dilemma he's in. So I just really played it from that point of view.

Pfeiffer: And you make an important distinction, which is that the viewers can view the mayor as just trying to suppress information. But it's also possible that the mayor is saying, "We might be wrong, the science is so new that maybe you're incorrect about the scale of the problem."

Imperioli: Yeah. The other problem is, if it is a real problem — which it could be — some of it might be my fault. And my ass is on the line.

Pfeiffer: The modern day parallels of this 19th century play seem pretty obvious: political polarization, spread of disinformation, threat of environmental catastrophe, science versus politics. How much do you think the audience should be conscious of those similarities versus just enjoy the story at face value?

Imperioli: I think they're both. I mean, they're very conscious of it. I talk to audience members after the show every night. And they're very aware of the parallels, the argument about climate change, the arguments during the pandemic: shut down the economy or not; wear masks or not, are they effective; is the vaccine effective. And they've just lived through all these arguments and are living through them. At the same time, the play and the way it's presented is very engaging and entertaining, I think, at least from what I hear from our audience members. So both are going on at the same time, which I think makes it a very rich and rewarding experience for the audience.

Pfeiffer: Oh, yeah, I laughed a lot during the show. And as we're talking about the theme, it sounds very somber. I saw the play earlier this month, and I don't remember the exact line, but when the doctor — who lives in Norway — comes under attack for saying what he believes is the truth, there's some character. maybe the doctor, that makes a remark about how this wouldn't happen in America. Do you remember that exact line?

Imperioli: He says: "In America, we won't have to worry about things like this."

Pfeiffer: Exactly. Now, when I was in there, that line got a lot of rueful ironic laughs, so people are obviously connecting the play to the state of modern-day America. What emotion do you think that was meant to elicit — more sad, more funny?

Imperioli: Oh, some nights that line gets a lot of applause. Like, a lot of applause. It's the audience just recognizing how easily these things translate into violence. I mean, we spoke about January 6 a few times during rehearsal and looked at a few videos from January 6, on how lies and misinformation could incite violence, as they do in the play. As it did happen on January 6.

Pfeiffer: There's a history repeating itself element to what we see on that stage.

Imperioli: A hundred per cent.

Pfeiffer: An unusual feature of the theater where the show is performed is that the audience entirely encircles the stage.

The theater is called Circle in the Square and the seats around the stage 360 degrees. How does that change the way you interact with the audience, or act if at all?

Imperioli: Oh, my God, it's so different. I've never done that. And the first dress rehearsal we had was 600 people were invited to it. So that night, I come out on stage, my entrance is like a minute into the play and Victoria Pedretti is already on stage [who plays his niece]. So the theater is like a little arena almost because the stage is on the bottom and the seats go up from the stage. So I look at her and behind her is a wall of people that you can actually see.

Now usually when you're on a stage, you look at your scene partner, you're seeing the set behind them and the audience is to your right or left way out there. But I kind of panicked, really happy to just look in her eyes and focus on her. And after that scene was over we were both backstage and we both said to each other, "I'm freaking out." It was a very different experience. But there's an intimacy and an immediacy to that theater that's absolutely thrilling. The intimacy of it and the proximity, they're much closer to you than they are in a traditional stage. And I think it just really adds to the energy. And it's really fun. Now that I've settled into it, I love it. I want to do all my plays there.

Pfeiffer: I loved it, too. And really, it means there's almost no bad seat in the house, which is a great benefit, I think.

Imperioli: Exactly, exactly, it is.

Pfeiffer: Does doing it night after night, and sometimes two a day when you have a matinee, does it get tiring? Does it take any of the fun out of it?

Imperioli: It's tiring, but no. Every night it's different. And every night you make different discoveries. And also, for me, every night going up there, that audience spent a lot of money. If they live in New York or the suburbs, they've gotten babysitters, they maybe went out to dinner, they paid for parking, hundreds of dollars, maybe even $1,000 to come see this play. For some people it's the first time ever going to see a play. There were people outside who said, "I flew in from Turkey to see this play. I flew in from England to see this." People making great effort. And I think about that before I go on stage and say this is important to people and we have to give them 100%.

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Sacha Pfeiffer
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Kai McNamee
Sarah Handel