Is it possible to write a play about real people without a lot of clunky exposition, particularly now when we can't assume that an audience has much in the way of cultural literacy? Doug Wright's POSTERITY imagines a series of meetings between an aging Henrik Ibsen, who was well aware of his cultural celebrity, and a volatile younger sculptor assigned to create a bust of the great playwright. The sculptor, Gustav Vigeland (Hamish Linklater) thinks this sort of assignment is beneath him even when the subject is Norway's most famous citizen, and Ibsen (John Noble) thinks that having a marble bust of himself in a public park is an insult to his importance. Vigeland takes the job because it may lead to funding for the giant sculpture garden he wants to create in Frogner Park. Both men rightfully see themselves as geniuses, set above the ordinary people, particularly the bureaucrats they have to deal with and the rigid social conventions of their native land. There are only three other charters in POSTERITY: the lawyer who is the go-between between Vigeland and Ibsen (Henry Schram), a young would-be artist who serves as Vigeland's apprentice and model (Mickey Theis) and a middle-aged housekeeper who also serves as a model (Dale Soules).
One's response to POSTERITY may be based on his/her level of interest in Ibsen and the courage and ego it takes to be a great artist. We live in an age in which people want their artists to be likable. Opera singers on Met broadcasts have to be able to sound like they're on a late night talk show. No temperament allowed. Ibsen and Vigeland would have sneered at pleasing the masses in that way. They lived in an age when artists were revered, set apart from ordinary mortals. They weren't expected to be nice. The play is also a meditation on human limitations -- how our bodies and minds ultimately fail us no matter how great we may be. Ibsen is at the end of his life, trapped in a feeble body. More than his characters, he looks back with regret at his human failings. Vigeland is constantly frustrated at having to beg for the funding to create his works.
I found the play fascinating. Yes, some of the exposition is awkward, but the confrontations between Ibsen and Vigeland were exciting. Of course, the acting helped. I have never been a fan of John Noble on television. He has always struck me as a shameless ham. Of course, the roles he has been given on shows like FRINGE encouraged that kind of hamming. What one gets from him in POSTERITY is old school "grand" acting that is perfect for the "Grand", if failing Ibsen. Noble's style contrasts effectively with Hamish Linklater's more "method" approach toward Vigeland. Like method actors of the 1950s, Linklater tends to act through in a lot of verbal and physical tics. Both men engage in different forms of what years ago on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE Jon Lovitz called "ACTING!!!" Nonetheless it's fun to watch two rather extreme actors go at each other. The supporting cast is, as usual at the Atlantic, made up of very good ensemble actors: Henry Scram as the lawyer, Dales Soules as the housekeeper/model and Mickey Theis as the frustrated apprentice. Doug Wright has directed his own work effectively. The production is well paced. Derek McLane's set presents a convincing sculptor's studio. Just once, however, I'd like to see a set at the Atlantic that isn't dark colored.
Henrik Ibsen was one of the most important figures in 19th century intellectual, artistic and theatre history. POSTERITY may not totally do him justice, but it is an absorbing, highly enjoyable play.
POSTERITY. Atlantic Theatre Company, March 31, 2018.