Review by Tulis McCall
Be careful out there. What I thought were isolated cases of exposition may be turning into an epidemic. In Posterity now at Atlantic Theater Company in the Linda Gross Theater, Doug Wright gives us an acceptable, if predictable, first act and then proceeds to pull the rug out from under his own self in the second, using exposition as the weapon.
This is another of Wright’s historical drama’s (I Am My Own Wife being another) that is based on a true story. In 1901 the Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland asked Henrik Ibsen to sit for a bust. Period. The bust is featured in the program’s insert, and it is a fierce creation.
There are a few accounts of this meeting, one of which was written by the poet Gunnar Heiberg, so apparently the two men were not alone. Mr. Wright has put pen to paper to imagine their meeting. True or not, in this play Vigeland (Hamish Linklater) is more or less being held hostage by his manager Sophus Larpent (Henry Stram). If Vigeland wants the powers that be, in particular a certain public servant with a lot of clout, to approve funding for a magnificent fountain that Vigeland envisions (and ultimately created), Vigeland MUST sculpt the bust of Ibsen (John Noble). Indeed this would not seem like an imposition as busts seem to be Vigeland’s speciality. There are over 50 of them scattered about his workshop. (I counted them during the less interesting moments). Vigeland protests, but soon surrenders.
Enter the Great Man himself, and we are treated to an enjoyable 20 or so minutes of jousting between these two fine actors. Linklater and Noble are not challenged by the script, but make the absolute most of the verbal fisticuffs and seem to be having a good time with one another. In order to end the duel, Wright has contrived to hand Ibsen a small stroke, of which the writer had many during his final years.
Act Two. We begin with a nearly interminable description of what happened to Ibsen after the stroke, poorly executed by Vigeland’s two employees Greta Bergstrom (Dale Soules) and Anfinn Beck (Mickey Theis). The text and the performances are unnecessary and dull. Ditto for the next installment of The Great Man’s condition by Larpent. Vigeland is informend he must call on Ibsen to begin the bust. Beck remembers that he forgot to procure the needed pipe clay, which means that Vigeland will not be able to start the sculture. So afraid of Viggeland is Beck, he decides to run away, and we must sit through another over written scene of his goodbye to Bergstrom.
FINALLY we arrive at Ibsen’s home where, indeed, Vigeland discovers that his box of clay is really a box of dirt. To cover he calls on Larpent to dash about town to find some, and when Ibsen arrives he instructs him to sit in a chair facing away from Vigeland, so that the artist can stall until his clay arrives.
That’s right. The subject of the sculpture sits with his back to the artist, who apparently can pretend to have some sort of Matrix-like vision and can loop his sight around to the front and sides of the subject’s head. Easy peasy.
It’s moments in the theatre like this when you just want to stand up and shout, “FIRE!” Being arrested might be a welcome alternative to being an audience.
Turns out that this completely unbelievable situation gives Ibsen the perfect opportunity to rattle on about what a bad father and husband he has been to his unfailing wife and devoted son, and that he hopes that the sculpture will reveal his love for them. It will be a gift to posterity. John Noble gives this sophomoric narration everything he has to make it work. And Linklater busies himself thinking up things to do to cover the fact that he is totally adrift.
The play rolls to a full stop at long last, with none of us the better off.
Posterity – Written and directed by Doug Wright
WITH: Hamish Linklater (Gustav Vigeland), John Noble (Henrik Ibsen), Dale Soules (Greta Bergstrom), Henry Stram (Sophus Larpent) and Mickey Theis (Anfinn Beck).
Sets by Derek McLane; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by David Lander; music and sound by David Van Tieghem; dialect coach, Deborah Hecht; production stage manager, Samantha Watson; production manager, Michael Wade; associate artistic director, Annie MacRae; general manager, Jamie Tyrol. Presented by Atlantic Theater Company, Neil Pepe, artistic director; Jeffory Lawson, managing director. At the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, Chelsea, 866-811-4111, atlantictheater.org. Through April 5. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.