Between An Enemy of the People and Mary Jane, Playwright Amy Herzog Is Tired, But Happy | Playbill

Special Features Between An Enemy of the People and Mary Jane, Playwright Amy Herzog Is Tired, But Happy

She has two plays running on Broadway at the same time.

Amy Herzog Michaelah Reynolds

It is a rare feat for any writer to have two shows on Broadway in consecutive seasons. Last season, playwright Amy Herzog wrote the adaptation for the hit revival of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll's House, led by Jessica Chastain. This season she’s following with an adaptation of his play An Enemy of the People. But perhaps even more impressive, her own play Mary Jane is currently having its Broadway premiere, giving her two Main Stem productions in a singular season. “It’s what a playwright dreams of,” she says. “I’m not complaining, but I am a little tired right now.”

A Doll's House was Herzog’s first adaptation. It was something she'd long wanted to explore, but complete coincidence—or Kismet she calls it—when she was contacted last year to work on the Ibsen classic. 

"I just loved the process," Herzog says. "It just felt like an amazing kind of palette cleanser from my own work to go deep inside someone else's work, but also have the freedom to put my own stamp on it and bring it to audiences today."

The production was nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Revival. It featured Chastain in a chair center stage for the entire performance as other characters, visible throughout, entered the space from the perimeter to interact with her. There were no sets or scenic backdrops, and costumes were modern clothes in a dark blue and black palette. The actors spoke Herzog's modern translation in hushed tones, which were amplified by body mics, creating the effect that almost seemed as if the audience were wearing headphones, hearing an audioplay. 

While Herzog was deep in research and surrounded by Ibsen texts, her husband, director Sam Gold, picked up a collection of plays by Ibsen and read An Enemy of the People. 

"I think his first response was actually, 'This is a role for Jeremy Strong,' and his second response was, 'This is wildly relevant,'" recalls Herzog. The theatre couple has been friends with Strong for over 20 years and they knew his work on the hit HBO series Succession was wrapping. Gold reached out and suggested that Strong read the play. "Jeremy immediately read it and got back to Sam and said, 'Let's do this.' And suddenly it was a real thing. And I was loving translating Ibsen, so Sam asked me to do it with them," says Herzog. 

An Enemy of the People opened March 18 at Circle in the Square Theatre with Gold helming the production and Strong leading the cast as Dr. Thomas Stockmann. For this go-round, Herzog has kept Ibsen's setting and time period. Set in a small Norwegian town, a doctor discovers that there is contamination in the town’s baths, on which the local economy relies. When he plans to announce it, he’s met with opposition from his brother, the mayor (played by The White Lotus actor Michael Imperioli), and several townsfolk. Science and politics collide, making this 140-year-old play remarkably timely. “Relevant as almost to be gauche,” says Herzog. When she started working on the adaptation she thought, “We’re going to have to find ways to tone certain things down so it doesn’t feel like we’re pandering to our current moment.”

The production does not come off as pandering, but it's relevancy cannot be escaped. Even a climate activist group agreed, interrupting a press preview performance to protest climate change and causing some confusion in the audience as whether it was part of the show or not—as it seemed to so clearly align with the show's themes. 

To be clear, the protest not part of the show—although Gold has directed the production to include the audience in an unobtrusive, yet somewhat immersive way. During intermission, the audience is invited on stage for a shot of aquavit. The house lights stay up as the performance resumes with Dr. Stockmann addressing the house as if they are attendees at a town hall meeting. 

This is the first time the married couple of Herzog and Gold have worked together as writer and director. "It felt like the right kind of intermediate step, because it's not a new play of mine. Sam has articulated elsewhere that he had anxiety about directing one of my new plays, that he was worried he might ruin it, which I think is ludicrous," says Herzog. "It's been so fun. We've spent 17 years honing our shared artistic vocabulary and it's just so fun to apply it to this great old play together."

Amy Herzog, Jeremy Strong, and Sam Gold Michaelah Reynolds

The two are thinking about working on Ibsen’s Ghosts next—the play he wrote in the year between A Doll’s House and An Enemy of the People—to complete a sort of artistic trilogy, Herzog says. Ibsen was famously very angry when he wrote An Enemy of the People, though the work was ultimately well-receivedA Doll's House had been controversial with its ending, butthe playwright was still recognized contemporaneously as an important writer. However, his follow up, Ghosts, shocked audiences with its themes of incest, venereal disease, and suicide. He was vilified and rejected.  

While it may seem a modern audience, with far more media exposure to taboo topics, may find less offense in Ghosts, Herzog thinks it still has relevant material to mine. "It's very possible to run afoul of certain kinds of piety in our culture, too," she says. 

But before she can dive into Ghosts, Herzog has the Broadway premiere of her own play, Mary Jane—which opened April 23 at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. “I’m just really happy that it’s possible for a play about motherhood and about caregiving to wind up on Broadway,” she says.

The play centers on a single mother in New York City raising a sick child (Rachel McAdams in her Broadway debut), and how her life intersects with the community of women caregivers around her as she battles bureaucracy.

Mary Jane premiered at Yale Rep in 2017, then made its Off-Broadway premiere that same year at New York Theatre Workshop (where Carrie Coon played the title role). It closes the season for MTC, which opened last fall with Jocelyn Bioh's Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, which also featured a cast of women characters in community, supporting each other. 

"Part of the reason I was excited about being in the same season as Jaja's African Hair Braiding is I feel like they're kind of sister plays. I don't know if Jocelyn would feel the same way, so I don't want to be presumptuous," says Herzog, "but they're both plays out women caring for women and witnessing each other's lives."

Mary Jane is a very personal story for Herzog. Though Herzog’s circumstances have been much different than Mary Jane’s, she was inspired to write the play after moving through the world with her own sick child. “I was just amazed by the people in our society who have chosen to live lives of caregiving—the richness of those lives and those relationships,” she says. “I think people from the outside have a view of what that life must be like that goes something like, ‘How sad!’ And I really wanted to capture the strangeness and originality and richness in the lives of people caring for sick kids.”

Susanna Guzman, April Matthis, Susan Pourfar, Anne Kauffman, Rachel McAdams, Lily Santiago, and Katya Campbell Rebecca J. Michelson

Herzog's work also includes Belleville, After the Revolution, and the Pulitzer finalist 4000 Miles. All have been produced Off-Broadway. As she builds her body of work, certain themes in her writing are emerging in the quiet dramas. After a moment of thought, Herzog puts her own words to two ideas running through her oeuvre: "A lot of my writing is about the stories people tell themselves about their own lives and the way certain kinds of narratives define who we are and the way we live. I would also say another theme in my work is about the seemingly minor moments in people's lives that contain large insights, so that what you're watching happen on stage is not necessarily a screaming fight, or people being nasty to each other. It might be happening in pretty normal tones of voice." 

It calls to mind the hushed tones of her Doll's House. Herzog agrees that having been largely influenced by the Ibsen classic, it illustrates both of those ideas that she tries to achieve in her own work. "Nora has bought into this story about her life that is totally at odds with reality. She's bought into it that she is a weak, feminine person who needs her husband's protection, and the reality is, she's an extremely strong, smart, and forceful person," says Herzog. 

Then when Nora does leave at the end of the play, it is not with a fight. "It's a very calm conversation. it's the end of a marriage that happens calmly between two people sitting next to each other," Herzog explains. 

"People reaching new kinds of understanding. That's something I'm always trying to capture in my work."

Photos: Jeremy Strong, Michael Imperioli, Victoria Pedretti, More Open An Enemy of the People On Broadway

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