In Atlantic Theater Company’s Posterity–the newest work by Pulitzer Prize-winning Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife), who also directs here–playwright Henrik Ibsen (Fringe’s John Noble) and sculptor Gustav Vigeland (Hamish Linklater) are used as conduits for a moving meditation on how artists see the world and how they are remembered. The Ibsen of the play is a man at the end of his life, at once sure that his name will live on yet fearful about how it will perpetuate.
When the play opens, Vigeland has large ambitions, but few funds. Completing a bust of Ibsen would help him financially, but the idea is unsavory to the young Vigeland, who wants to be known as an artist rather than a craftsman. On top of that, he must begrudgingly convince Ibsen to sit for him. Vigeland’s tactics are counterintuitive—he throws negative reviews at Ibsen’s feet—making the first act an energetic back-and-forth between the men, both defensive over their creative status.
Since the play is all about immortalizing the author of A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, it makes sense that Noble’s performance as Ibsen would be the most remarkable. Wearing heavy mutton chops, Noble stands haughtily firm in the first act, only to brilliantly crumble in the second; a man brutally taken down by illness and internal demons. (A more literal demon is perhaps also at work in a sort of “satan ex machina” moment.) Linklater, as Vigeland, has the more challenging task of listening to and reacting to Ibsen, especially in the play’s final moments. The actor convincingly lends Vigeland the anxiousness of a man who covets his pride, but is uncertain of how he will be remembered by time. The dramatic irony in the play lies in the fact that, as an American audience, we know how large Ibsen looms long after his death, but are perhaps more unfamiliar with Vigeland’s status.
Dale Soules is amusing as Vigeland’s maid and model, but the second act storyline between she and Vigeland’s eager, ambitious apprentice (played by Mickey Theis) states the play’s thesis a bit too obviously. (These fictional characters, a note in the program explains, are based off of a sculpture that is one of Vigeland’s famed works in Frogner Park.)
Derek McLane’s set, imbued with cold light, is stunning—a series of busts, many shrouded, line the walls of the Atlantic. While literally meant to convey the artist’s studio, McLane’s work also feels symbolic. These busts are men who have been sculpted for, yes, posterity, but have faded into varying levels of obscurity. The men depicted on stage, however, will linger. B+