Just by Looking

Doug Wright has clearly done his research.  His new play Posterity, about the meeting of Henrik Ibsen (John Noble) and Gustav Vigeland (Hamish Linklater), is full of assurance about its subjects.  Based on a true story, the young Vigeland, considered one of Norway’s greatest sculptors (he designed the Nobel Peace Prize medal), is offered an assignment: to make a bust of Ibsen, who appears to be near death.  Though he initially resists—such assignments are beneath him—he agrees in order to ingratiate himself with the Cultural Ministry, who are the only body likely to fund what would become the Viegland Installation, a massive and masterful sculpture installation in Oslo.

What results is a series of talky scenes which often just feel like an animated history lesson.  Take, for example, an early argument between Viegland and Ibsen, over the success of the latter’s plays.  As evidence, Ibsen reads an extract from one review: “Henrik Ibsen is one of the world’s greatest writers.  Before him, criticism can make but feeble show.  When the art is perfect, the critic is superfluous.”  When Viegland finds out the author is a student in Dublin, he snorts, “Not even a professional writer!”  But they are, of course, speaking about James Joyce.  And while the review is real (Joyce was thrilled to receive a response from Ibsen), it has no purpose here except as an anachronistic punchline or as an historical curiosity; it’s the kind of thing a professor or museum tour guide would use to spice up a lecture.

True, Mr. Noble is excellent as Ibsen: stately, insecure, vulnerable.  But Mr. Linklater, an actor I admire, has been miscast.  Scrawny, youthful, but wearing a beard, he looks a little like a kid dressed up in his dad’s suit.  Meanwhile, Dale Soules and Mickey Theis are fine as Viegland’s servant and assistant doubling as models, though their presence in the play feels arbitrary, as if Mr. Wright felt the need to thicken his narrative.

Really, the main problem is that the only appeal of Posterity is its veracity.  We simply wouldn’t care about any of this if it weren’t true, if these weren’t real people.  Furthermore, there is no sense that the form has been fitted to the subject, but rather that the subject has been fitted to the form: this is just bland biographical drama.  Towards the end, when Ibsen begins to think not only of his artistic legacy but also his personal one, we are confronted with a long, self-indulgent, and maudlin lecture on his failures, marital, paternal, and otherwise, and offered dialogue we would never accept in other circumstances.  What would we do, say, if Don Draper (or any other recent iteration of the brilliant asshole) told a photographer, in a tremulous voice, “Make your subject appear kinder than he was in life”?  Posterity is packed with these embarrassing moments, and though I have reservations about Ibsen himself, he certainly deserves a more substantial rendering than this.

Posterity runs through April 5th at the Linda Gross Theater. 336 W. 20th Street New York, NY.  2 hours 15 minutes.  One intermission.

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