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A CurtainUp Review

Most sculptors would leap at the chance to carve such a renowned figure.— Gustav's agent Larpent, in response to his reluctance to accept a commission to do a bust of Henrik Ibsen
I'm an artist. There's a difference.—Gustav

Yes. An artist is a sculptor with an ego.— Larpent
Hamish Linklater and John Noble (Photo: Doug Hamilton)
Put together two of Norway's most famous men — Playwright Henrik Ibsen (John Noble) and Sculptor Gustav Vigeland (Hamish Linklater)— each with an enormous ego. Imagine that their meeting is prompted by a commission for Vigeland to make a commemorative bust of the aging and ailing Ibsen. Make it clear that this is a commission Vigeland is reluctant to take on and that Ibsen is just as reluctant to pose for.

For Vigeland the commission means that he must put aside a monumental masterpiece he's working on. For Ibsen, this represents a lack of appreciation for his work. ("Two dozen plays! Apparently that's insufficient to guarantee me a place in the public's memory. No. I must be lionized in some god-forsaken park, where not the people but the pigeons will offer their accolades. This is what they call a tribute.")

With Doug Wright, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize Winning I am My Own Wife ( review )and the book for Grey Gardens ( review) to dramatize this imagined meeting, Posterity has all the makings of a fascinating new play. Much of it indeed is though it doesn't quite live up to my extremely high expectations.

The imagined interchanges between the dramatist who in his later years was known as The Sphinx and the not much more knowable sculptor cover a lot of ground. They begin with a cautious getting acquainted meeting to which Ibsen comes because he admires Vigelandd's work. It quickly turns contentious. By the end of the first act it switches gears and heads to a resurrection finale not unlike the epilogue of Ibsen's own play about a sculptor, When the Dead Awaken. Linklater and John Noble have the kind of booming, sonorous voices making hearing devices unnecessary except for the most severely hearing impaired. At a time with too much mumbling delivery that's most welcome. Though both give impassioned performances, there are times when seem to have wandered in from a Shakespeare play.

The action start out with the promises of being more than a talky discussion play. Two of the secondary players, an older woman named Greta Bergstrom (Dale Soules) and Anfinn Beck (Mickey Theis), the muscular young studio apprentice are posing for one of the "live" nude sculptures that were Vigeland's specialty. Though Wright invented these characters for purposes of adding some subtext to the Ibsen-Vigeland meetings, he's done his homework. The pose the pair strikes replicates a memorable Vigeland work still standing in Oslo's Frogner Park. (the actual sculpture is pictured in a helpful background page inserted in the program).

With the arrival of Sophus Larpent (the, as usual excellent Henry Stram) Vigeland's soliciter and agent, it turns out that Bergstrom's main job is as his housekeeper. She moonlights as a model for extra money. Larpent is re-envisioned by Wright but based on an actual person, a devoted art collector who lived in relative poverty in order to support artists (including Vigeland). His shocked reaction to seeing his housekeeper dishabille adds some needed lightness. Bergstrom and young Beck also get to provide some additional subtext.

The interplay between Ibsen and the sculptor who considers celebrity portraits as a necessary evil to support his grander ambitions is full of interesting ideas about art, and what constitutes a meaningful legacy; for example, their discussion about the difference between creating a true to life character with words or visually. But much of it does come off as too talky. It's also puzzling to the initially reluctant sculptor do a turnaround and begs for the job

Derek McLane's woodsy studio is as much a star of this production as any of the actors. That also applies to the way he transforms that loft-like space for the scenes in Ibsen's home. But the somewhat abrupt ending would have gained from a few projections from the masterpiece that Vigeland did get to complete and that is now a major Oslo attraction.

Perhaps Posterity's longueurs would have been avoided if Wright had turned over the director's baton to Moises Kaufman who helmed I Am My Own Wife, and concentrated on giving his script another go-round.

For more about Henrik Ibsen and links to his works that Curtainup has reviewed, see our Ibsen Backgrounder .

Written & directed by Doug Wright
Cast: Hamish Linklater , John Noble, Dale Soules, Henry Stram and Mickey Theis.
Scenic design by Derek McLane
Costume design by Susan Hilferty
Lighting design by David Lander
Original music and sound design by David Van Tieghem.
Dialects: Deborah Hecht Stage Manager: Samantha Watson
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, includes intermission
Atlantic Theater's Linda Gross Theater, 336 W 20th St.
From 2/25/15; opening 3/15/15; closing 4/05/15.
Tuesday, 7PM Wednesday to Friday, 8PM; Saturday, 2PM & 8PM; Sunday, 2PM & 7PM
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 3/11 press preview
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