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Actor Michael Imperioli talks 'An enemy of the People' and its modern parallels

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

If you've watched "The Sopranos," you know actor Michael Imperioli as Christopher Moltisanti, a low-ranking New Jersey mobster. If you've watched Season 2 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.

MICHAEL IMPERIOLI: You know, 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 wanted to become an actor.

PFEIFFER: 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.

IMPERIOLI: This town - small town that 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. It's - people are making money, and it's about to kind of blow up and be really great. And a lot of money's been invested to build some more resorts and hotels. And, you know, 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.

PFEIFFER: Right. People are joking about invisible creatures and...

IMPERIOLI: Yeah.

PFEIFFER: ...Laughing it off like, what is this guy talking about?

IMPERIOLI: 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? It's - the science is so new. How can we risk the well-being 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, you know, 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 - right? - which it could be, some of it might be my fault. And my ass is on the line.

PFEIFFER: Yeah. 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? You know, it's - the parallels are very obvious. 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 in 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. Was that - 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 - not just a lot, like, a lot of applause. It's the audience just recognizing, you know, 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, misinformation could incite violence, as they do in the play, as it did happen on January 6.

PFEIFFER: Yeah. There's, like - there's a history-repeating-itself element to what we see on that stage.

IMPERIOLI: A hundred percent.

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. The seats surround 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, you know, and Victoria Pedretti is already on stage.

PFEIFFER: This is your niece. I believe the character's your niece.

IMPERIOLI: My niece.

PFEIFFER: OK.

IMPERIOLI: So the stage - you know, the theatre is like a little arena almost because the stage is on the bottom, and the seats go up...

PFEIFFER: Yeah.

IMPERIOLI: ...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 and really had 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. Like, 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. 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. Yes.

PFEIFFER: Does doing it night after night and sometimes two-a-days 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. It's in the repetition. 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 a thousand dollars to come see this play. For some people, it's their first time ever going to see a play. There were people in the outside who said, I flew in from Turkey to see this play. I flew in from England to see this. People are coming, you know, 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 a hundred percent.

PFEIFFER: Actor Michael Imperioli, now starring in the Broadway show "An Enemy Of The People." Thank you. And I really, really enjoyed the show.

IMPERIOLI: I'm really glad you got to see it. And I love what you do. And I'm a big fan.

PFEIFFER: Oh, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAYBOI CARTI SONG, "3AM IN CALABASAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
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