Amy Herzog flips the script — again — with two plays on Broadway

After speaking with the busy Tony-nominated playwright last year, we caught up with her about her two plays this spring: An Enemy of the People and Mary Jane.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

Brooklyn-based playwright Amy Herzog is doubling down on Broadway – in a couple of ways. Her adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, starring Jeremy Strong and running through June 16, follows her Tony Award-nominated adaptation of his A Doll’s House, starring Jessica Chastain, last season. There’s more. Her own 2017 play Mary Jane, led by Rachel McAdams, runs from April 2 to June 2.

Both shows shine with bright stars – Strong is an Emmy winner for Succession, McAdams an Oscar nominee for Spotlight. Equally impressive are Herzog’s own wide-ranging talents and interests, revealed by her diverse body of work.

On one hand, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer cleverly streamlines Ibsen’s play about a doctor, Thomas Stockmann (Strong), facing hostile and even violent censure for telling the truth about polluted water in his town's spa baths. Herzog makes the century-old story as fresh and urgent as today’s news.

She also stirs your heart with the delicate, down-to-earth drama Mary Jane, about a mom with a sick child. Last year, her and Enemy director Sam Gold’s 11-year-old daughter died from complications related to a rare muscle disorder.

Sociopolitical? Or deeply personal? Herzog chooses both. In a continuation of a conversation with New York Theatre Guide from last year, Herzog talks about the themes and takeaways of her Broadway double bill.

What draws you to Ibsen? Back-to-back Ibsens is quite a feat, and An Enemy of the People has Strong, Michael Imperioli, and Victoria Pedretti.

I think college was when I saw my first production of A Doll’s House. That was the Ibsen play I was most interested in for a long time. I became interested later in Hedda Gabler and some of the others. But I don't want to falsely advertise myself as an Ibsen scholar or or aficionado.

You’ve been called an “Ibsen whisperer.”

I don't think I have any kind of extraordinary access to him, other than spending a lot of time with the plays to try to understand them as well as I can. The Wild Duck is one of my favorites. I love that play and it's really challenging. So it has been on my mind.

Should we expect a third Herzog/Ibsen revival in 2025?

(laughs) I don't know, maybe. It might be time for me to take a break and come back to him a little later.

You and the father of modern drama are an odd couple: Ibsen takes on big social and political themes. Your plays, including Mary Jane, are more intimate.

I'd say it depends on the play. A Doll's House actually does have plenty of things in common with my work. I’m sure it’s reductive, but Ibsen has two modes – a more domestic mode and a more sociopolitical and oratorical mode.

The latter is definitely the more challenging one for me. But my play After the Revolution is about my extended family of very political and very verbal people.

Do you still see Enemy as "freakishly timely," as you said to us last year? At my performance, climate change activist group Extinction Rebellion unexpectedly disrupted the play.

I wasn’t there, so it’s tricky to talk about. It had never happened before. I don’t know whether it'll happen again.

I am glad that people are talking about climate change around our show. That’s certainly one of our intentions. Another thing the play is dealing with is messaging: how the messenger affects the message and what's the best way to get one’s message across. Certainly Extinction Rebellion is tangling with similar questions.

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What inspired some of the changes you made in your Enemy adaptation? Stockmann’s wife, Katherine, typically appears in the play, for one, but you made him a widow.

Giving him that backstory of having just come out of a really intense period of grieving and reentering society helps tell the story. Tying the baths to his late wife's legacy helps make them not merely a scientific investment. They’re a real personal investment. Part of getting rid of Katherine is making Petra [Stockmann's daughter] a bigger and more complex role.

Also, the doctor usually stands alone at the end of the play. In your version, he’s with Petra trying to imagine a better future. The shift from "me" to "we" is striking.

I did want to give Petra more at the end of the play about how she has changed. Thomas is not the only person affected by these events.

On the flip side, what of Ibsen's work did you want to be sure to keep?

I didn't want him [Stockmann] to be the perfect hero. I wanted to retain some of the DNA of what Ibsen wrote, including the things that we find troubling now and that we might be tempted to edit out.

Switching gears, can you tell us more about Mary Jane?

It’s a play about caregivers, including mothers. Mary Jane is the primary caregiver of this child, a medically complex kiddo, and it's a very challenging job. She is a single mom. But she is doing it with many partners because there are all of these people in her life.

What do you hope audiences take away from Mary Jane?

What I wanted to get across is not how sad her life is, but how she has gained entry into a very specific, very interesting world of sick kids and their communities. There are joyful connections of solidarity and generosity even as circumstances become more and more difficult.

Do An Enemy of the People and Mary Jane share anything in common?

Structurally, they're both plays with a big old lead role. From there, what’s fundamentally different is that Stockmann is encountering many antagonists, while Mary Jane encounters no antagonists. All the people she encounters are there in peace.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Top image credit: Amy Herzog. (Photo by Sam Gold)
In-article image credit: Victoria Pedretti and Jeremy Strong in An Enemy of the People. (Photo by Emilio Madrid)

Originally published on

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