'Posterity': Theater Review
Pulitzer- and Tony-winning 'I Am My Own Wife' author Doug Wright imagines the encounters between Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland and famed playwright Henrik Ibsen.
Very little is known about the 1901 encounters between Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland and famed playwright Henrik Ibsen, when the latter sat for a series of sessions to have his bust sculpted. But that hasn't stopped playwright Doug Wright, author of the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning I Am My Own Wife, from imagining what their interplay might have been. Posterity, now receiving its world premiere at off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company in a production starring Hamish Linklater (The Newsroom) and John Noble (Fringe, Sleepy Hollow), uses the meeting as a springboard for a freewheeling meditation on the nature of artistic pursuit and legacy. Unfortunately, while the concept is certainly intriguing, the play is unlikely to achieve what its title suggests.
The writing is undeniably smart in a historically educational sort of way, and the insightful dialogue illuminates both main characters. Vigeland (Linklater), financially struggling at the time, was loath to create yet another portrait, especially one of the famously irascible Ibsen.
"Try carving muttonchops; it can't be done," he whines to his endlessly loyal patron, Sophus Larpent (Henry Stram).
"Most sculptors would leap at the chance to carve such a renowned figure," Larpent argues.
"I'm an artist. There's a difference," Vigeland points out, to which Larpent replies, "An artist is a sculptor with an ego."
Vigeland eventually takes the assignment, hoping it will lead to government sponsorship of his ambitious plans to create a massive sculptural installation in the heart of Oslo (then called Kristiania).
Ibsen (Noble), aged 73 and in poor health, is equally unenthusiastic. Too impatient to sit still for the many lengthy sessions required, he feels that the commission of the bust by the country's Cultural Ministry is actually an insult.
"Two dozen plays!" he huffs. "Apparently that's insufficient to guarantee me a place in the public's memory." He's also chagrined to learn that the sculptor hasn't read all of his plays. But he finally relents, leading to an intense session in which the two men bicker about a variety of topics, with Vigeland needling the playwright by reading excerpts from criticism of his works.
"A critic is to a work of art what a barnacle is to a whale," Ibsen retorts. And so it goes, until Ibsen suffers a debilitating stroke that ends the session prematurely.
In Act 2, the sculptor resumes his work in his subject's home, with the deathly ill playwright having had a change of heart. He's now eager for Vigeland to preserve his likeness for posterity, if only to assuage his guilt over the way he's treated his wife and son.
Despite its potentially fascinating subject matter, Posterity fails to compel, and the endlessly talky dialogue often has a forced, artificial feel. The frequent appearances of two fictional characters — Greta (Dale Soules), an elderly housekeeper, and Anfinn (Mickey Theis), Vigeland's young apprentice, both first seen posing in the nude — add little more than minor comic relief to the rambling proceedings.
As is common with playwrights directing their own work, Wright's staging is self-indulgent to the point of tedium. But he has elicited fine performances from the two leads: Linklater, who's proved his stage chops in such productions as The Comedy of Errors and The School for Lies, well conveys his character's frustrated ambitions, while veteran theater actor Noble is utterly commanding as the forbidding Ibsen, who's not above practically giggling with delight when told that he has "a gaggle of female admirers."
Posterity can certainly be commended for its ambition. But much like the playwright it depicts, you'll find yourself impatiently waiting for it to be over.
Cast: John Noble, Hamish Linklater, Dale Soules, Henry Stram, Mickey Theis
Director-playwright: Doug Wright
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer: David Lander
Music & sound designer: David Van Tieghem
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company