by: Michael Bracken
Chances are you’ve never wondered why or whether Henrik Ibsen’s image was officially sculpted for posterity. But writer-director Doug Wright bravely embraces the subject despite its considerable potential for sabotage by the weight of history, as he relates an embroidered account of the Norwegian literary giant’s meeting with his countryman, the sculptor Gustav Vigeland. The result is Posterity, an Atlantic Theater Company production at the Linda Gross Theater. And for one of its two acts, it’s a clash of artistic titans that refuses to get bogged down in pedantic posing.
Vigeland (Hamish Linklater) has no desire whatsoever to recreate Ibsen (John Noble) in clay. He’d rather concentrate on his own concepts, like the mismatched nudes he’s doing when the play begins. His apprentice Anfinn (Mickey Theis) and a local housekeeper, Greta (Dale Soules), many years Anfinn’s senior, model for him, locked in an embrace that’s arguably, but not definitively, maternal.
Into his studio (artfully imagined by Derek McLane, although one wonders at the profusion of busts, given Vigeland’s aversion to them) bursts Sophus Larpent (Henry Stram). Vigeland’s agent and lawyer, Larpent tells his client about a government commission to create a bust of Norway’s most famous writer. He advises Vigeland that if he does Ibsen’s bust he’ll be able to pursue his dream project, a public work that’s a monumental mélange of themes and materials.
Vigeland agrees to have Ibsen come meet him. The playwright arrives. The fireworks begin. Vigeland advocates for the bust; Ibsen resists.
While both men have signature artistic temperaments, Ibsen’s is, by far, the more pronounced. Full of himself and his international success, he’s stuffy, formal, and condescending. But he’s met his match in Vigeland, whose style is less stilted but equally aggressive and considerably more varied. He questions Ibsen’s literary legacy, attacks his morality. The intensity of the confrontation builds steadily. When Vigeland changes course and laments, “I’m not a bad man, just desperate,” we think he might be close to hitting his mark. Ibsen demurs but Vigeland has not given up. Ibsen rises but almost immediately his legs betray him and he crumples to the floor.
Act Two follows. Suddenly there’s an energy void. Did a crew come during intermission and vacuum it away? No matter, it’s gone. The first act ends on such a high it would, admittedly, be hard to match. Still, Ibsen the lion has become the lamb – or more accurately the goat, given his temperament – but either way bleating rather than roaring.
One wonders why Wright lets the fire burn out so abruptly. A little license is certainly in order, since this is not a by the book factual narrative. Lethargy sets in. Even the relationship between Greta (who looks like she stepped out of a Vermeer painting, thanks to Susan Hilferty’s spot-on costuming) and Anfinn, platonic but intense in Act I, winds down.
Linklater is an engaging Vigeland. Contemporary without seeming out of his time, he’s casual and likable with just enough attitude to ring true as an artist. As Ibsen, Noble gives more of a one-note performance, but it’s a note one believes appropriate for someone of Ibsen’s age and stature. He’s fallen into a routine from which he can’t (and doesn’t necessarily want to) free himself. It is, in major part, the contrast between the two artists that makes their confrontation at the end of Act I so effective. It’s the kind of scene that could so easily slip into a shouting match or a pageant of posturing. Instead it’s exciting (helped by Wright’s initially crisp script) as it builds and builds to a climax, only to fade forever as the first act curtain goes down.
Posterity, through Sunday, April 5, 2015; Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street. www.atlantictheater.org
*Photos: Doug Hamilton