“Posterity,” an earnest drama about Henrik Ibsen and his fellow countryman, a struggling Norwegian sculptor named Gustav Vigeland, is the kind of play that Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner acquired during the golden age of Hollywood.
Biopics about revered artists and scientists gave class to MGM and Warner’s line-up of screwball comedies, mindless musicals, and gangster pictures, which of course, went on to outlive the movies about Chopin, Pasteur, and the Bronte sisters. Art rarely survives when it’s delivered with a capital A.
Doug Wright, author of the much acclaimed “Quills” and “I Am My Own Wife,” has written and directed a new play, “Posterity,” which opened Sunday at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York, and there’s no doubt about it. This is art with a capital A. Make that several capital A’s. His characters Ibsen (John Noble) and Vigeland (Hamish Linklater) can’t stop talking about art, and during the course of this two-hour drama they just about exhaust the subject. How will Ibsen’s artistic legacy affect his beloved son? What has Ibsen’s wife had to sacrifice to be a great artist’s wife? What position do critics hold in an artist’s life? (Wright is pretty clear on this one, comparing them to “barnacles on a whale.”)
If this barnacle can make a suggestion, it might be best if Wright’s supporting characters discuss something other than art. When Vigeland’s old housekeeper (Dale Soules) and his young gofer (Mickey Theis) comment on the future of art – she’s into flowers, he’s into abstraction – it’s time to turn off the MoMA headset.
Vigeland is an angry young artist who sees sculpting Ibsen’s bust as his ticket to a dream project, a mammoth fountain (now known as the Vigeland installation) in Oslo’s Frogner Park.
Ibsen, of course, is cranky and can’t be bothered with Vigeland or the bust. And since you’ve seen this movie before, Vigeland’s agent must teach the sculptor how to be political, flatter the old codger, and secure the bust assignment so he can go on to create his fountain (and become a Nazi sympathizer when he’s a much older man, not that Wright goes there with this play).
In act two, Ibsen is dying and suddenly contrite, and he essentially retracts everything he previously said about his son, his wife, his infidelities, and his art (but not his critics). Noble goes from stern and understated in the play’s first half to giving a fine Paul Muni impersonation at the end. Noble, overly ripe and mannered, doesn’t miss a trick, including a superb mid-Atlantic accent, in what amounts to a 30-minute death scene. Obviously, this is what Wright wants, since he also directs.
As for Noble’s young costar, Linklater is not Ronald Colman or Walter Pidgeon, and he brings great modern angst to his portrayal. It’s a performance from another, far more modern play. It’s doubtful that Mayer or Warner would have approved.