Rubbing two sticks together is one way to start a fire, but rubbing two hot-tempered artists' egos together, as Doug Wright (Tony and Pulitzer-winning I Am My Own Wife) does in POSTERITY, his new play at the Atlantic, produces only intermittent sparks. The artists in question are Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943), Norway’s most famous sculptor (designer of the Nobel Peace Prize), and the great playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906). In 1901 the 32-year-old Vigeland sculpted a bust of the ailing 73-year-old Ibsen, who had suffered several minor strokes, an experience Mr. Wright has ambitiously attempted to sculpt into a work of compelling drama, with occasional chips of wit falling hither and yon.
According to a program insert, the Vigeland-Ibsen relationship is described in a Norwegian volume by Tone Wikborg called Gustav Vigeland and Henrik Ibsen. A quick Internet search mentions only the 40-page original, so one presumes the work is not available in English. Even if it were, it would probably yield little, since the program mentions that “Little is known of their meeting, except for a few cursory accounts,” one of which is a passage translated in the insert.
POSTERITY is an old-fashioned biodrama about what might have happened when these two towering figures met—one at an early stage in his burgeoning career, the other nearing the end of his—their egos clashing as they faced off in a battle of artistic wills. The result, however, despite the occasionally engrossing arguments, frequently seems artificial, with even the lesser characters sounding like mouthpieces for momentary theatrical effects. For example, early on, Vigeland’s agent, Sophus Larpent (Henry Stram), enters the sculptor’s studio to find his stout, elderly housekeeper, Greta Bergstrom (Dale Soules), posing nude (along with Vigeland’s general factotum, Anfinn Beck [Mickey Theis]) for a work in progress; he’s so morally repulsed he fires her but, instead of meekly leaving, she retaliates with a perfectly phrased barrage you might have expected from a character in Bernard Shaw, finishing up with: “Oh, to you, Mr. Larpent, with your untrained eye, my body must look as full of heartbreak and exhaustion as the life I’ve lived in it. But I was quite a beauty once. Mr. Vigeland’s seen my every inch, and tells me I’m fit for his art, an inspiration, even, the years be damned. That’s a finer job description than the one you got to offer, sir.” This, remember, is the woman who scrubs Larpent’s bedpans.
Both Vigeland (Hamish Linklater) and Ibsen (John Noble) are depicted as reluctant to do what history and the play require. Ibsen doesn’t want another bust ("My work is the only eulogy I will ever need"); Vigeland doesn’t want to sculpt it, asking why he should perpetuate other peoples' fame before achieving his own. But Vigeland needs the commission as a step toward gaining approval for a mammoth fountain that will become his masterwork. Ibsen, persuaded by an official to sit for the bust but uncertain that Vigeland’s capable of doing him justice, comes to the sculptor's atelier to find out for himself. Despite his alleged reluctance to pose, he really wants to ensure he'll be remembered as he himself desires.
Without their contrasting goals, of course, the play would have no conflict, so what develops is a series of fabricated arguments in which the actors chew the scenery as they argue and talk about art, their mutual accomplishments, their personal lives, the critics, and what they’ll leave to posterity. This allows Mr. Wright to shove in as much biographical background on each—especially on Ibsen—as possible, but too little of it ignites, even after Ibsen suffers another stroke. He spends much of the second act physically incapacitated as Vigeland presumably sculpts his bust while crowds, worried about the playwright's health, keep vigil outside. I say presumably because, in a forced dramatic development, Anfinn has failed to procure the necessary clay; this allows Vigeland to pretend to be sculpting while Ibsen, whose sight is failing, can’t see what’s going on because the sculptor has removed his eyeglasses.
Most of the action, appropriately costumed by Susan Hilferty, is set in Vigeland’s expansive studio, designed by Derek McLane and lit by David Lander, with the typical skylight overhead, and shelf upon shelf of ghostly, veiled busts lining the walls. For the scene in Ibsen’s study, a doorway, window, and paintings are used to demarcate a downstage area, with the studio setting upstage looming over all. Dominating this room is a painting of a fiercely glaring August Strindberg; it’s hard not to wonder why Ibsen, who earlier dismissed him as “insane,” would have his younger Scandinavian rival occupy so prominent a place in his workplace.
Wright's directorial chisel doesn't have the lightest touch. There’s a tendency to overplay too many scenes, to express through facial, vocal, or gestural means each emotion, possibly as a way of making what is essentially a static discussion drama come alive. Mr. Linklater, one of our finer rising actors, plays Vigeland as a stereotypical, bearded, wild-eyed bohemian who finds it impossible to reign in his emotions; his abundant hair a wild mess powdered with plaster dust, he rages, shouts, and flails about, running his fingers through his hair, crouching, sinking to his knees, and otherwise playing to the rafters. On the other hand, he occasionally whispers to the point of inaudibility. Mr. Linklater's is a performance I suspect others will be raving about; for me, it was all acting, all the time.
There’s no trouble hearing Mr. Noble’s Ibsen, however. This powerful Australian actor has one of those magnificent stage voices you rarely hear anymore, and he uses it to full effect, emphasizing the man’s pride, vanity (he wears a chest-full of medals), and arrogance, while also conveying his great insecurity. Wearing a mane of pale, golden hair and the dramatist’s famous mutton chop whiskers, he has the leonine presence and bearing we associate with Ibsen. His is the production’s strongest performance; despite the bluster of his lines, he makes them flow convincingly from the great writer's mouth.
GHOSTS, one of Ibsen’s greatest plays, will be at BAM next month. I hope that seeing it will prove a more worthwhile meeting with the master’s mind than Mr. Wright’s earnest effort to put the playwright himself on stage.
Linda Gross Theater
Atlantic Theater Company
336 W. 20th Street, NYC
Through April 5