Doug Wright loves to wrangle with deceased figures of greater or lesser fame, and in Posterity, at the Atlantic's Linda Gross Theatre, he comes up with a humdinger.
He knows that at some point toward the end of Henrik Ibsen's life, supporters commissioned a bust from sculptor Gustav Vigeland. He knows that art advocate Sophus Larpent was crucial to the undertaking. He knows very little else, certainly not anything substantiated about Vigeland's help. That doesn't stop him from conjuring housekeeper Greta Bergstrom and gofer Anfinn Beck, who also serve as Vigeland models.
Nonetheless, Wright has written a rattling good two-act play in which Ibsen (John Noble) only reluctantly agrees to sit for Vigeland (Hamish Linklater), while Larpent (Henry Stram) fusses around and Bergstrom (Dale Soules) and Beck (Mickey Theis) pose in the altogether when not doing their boss's whims and abuse.
The highpoint of both acts -- the kind of set-tos that get spectators on the edge of their seats and thrilled to totter precariously there -- are charged exchanges between the playwright and the sculptor. When Ibsen initially refuses to go through with the underwritten plan, Vigeland thinks to manipulate him into agreeing by undermining the man's faith in himself. He reads negative reviews, with Ibsen angrily defending his place in theater history.
Thereby, the extended give-and-take backfires on Vigeland, who only regains the upper hand when the volatile Ibsen collapses. This leads to the second act in which a humbled Ibsen assents to sitting for the bust and an equally humbled Vigeland -- awkwardly bereft of the clay he needs -- tends abjectly to his subject. The tenor of this two-handed back-and-forth is a total reversal of the earlier confrontation and makes for even deeper dramaturgical results.
Throughout his entirely imagined circumstances, Wright threads humor. He has Vigeland read a condemning review of Ibsen's work by a student and then reveals the student who penned it as James Joyce. He has Vigeland condemn Ibsen for the adulation he's received over the decades -- to which Ibsen replies, "Fame is an aphrodisiac. I can't be blamed." At one point, he achieves droll humor with the single word, "Touché." There's also a more than brief chat about critics with Ibsen allowing that he likes the good ones but consider the others to be "barnacles."
(It's the kind of remark after which reviewers in the audience smile broadly to show anyone who might be looking what good sports they are.)
When the action is as heightened, as Posterity absolutely is, when two characters are this vaunted, pressure is on the actors to rise to the demanding occasion and not only individually. They must operate on the same performing plane. Noble and Linklater get there with space to spare. Noble, in his beard replete with muttonchops, brings Ibsen's hauteur in the first half and his humbled bearing in the second. Linklater's sculptor is also a fine blend of self-confidence and uncertainty.
Because Wright's passion here is centered on the Ibsen-Vigeland conflict, the presence of Larpent, Bergstrom and Beck sometimes seems superfluous. They supply a context for Ibsen and Vigeland, but too often they register as stage waits for the real thing, especially in a long opening scene during which the sculptor is working on a piece involving Bergstrom and Beck posing.
But although, the supporting three -- all giving strong performances -- sometimes appear solely on hand for fetch and carry duty, Wright does tie them into his main theme. He announces it in his title. He's interested in how people, including the very famous, concern themselves with the way they'll be remembered.
The most obvious is Ibsen, who begins by acting as if he has no worries but turns out to feel profound shame at the treatment he afforded his wife and son while he was courting the world's recognition. Although Vigeland doesn't make much of it as the play commences, he's counting on an Ibsen bust to confirm his reputation. He even admits to desperation for the project. (It's a development for which Wright hasn't quite prepared the audience.) The other three also are concerned with being forgotten, which by the final fade-out does seem to be Beck's destiny.
With that as his exploration, Wright certainly appears to be on to something, although viewers who genuinely don't have the will-my-reputation-be-interred-with-my-bones worry might just think impatiently to themselves, "Oh, get on with it."
Derek McLane's basic set is Vigeland's atelier, though it's somewhat altered in the second act to become Ibsen's drawing room. Three walls of shelves holding busts, most of then covered by white cloths, prevail. (For devoted theatergoers, they'll echo the laden shelves McLane provided for Wright's I Am My Own Wife.)
The inspiration here is that while for much of the stage time, they're simply abundant evidence of Vigeland's industrious output, they eventually become something else: They're the sightless regard of posterity, judging or not judging what has gone before. Playwright director Wright and McLane had a great day when they thought up that look.
Des Bishop is a 39-nine-year-old stand-up comic, who was born in Queens, was sent to boarding school in Ireland at 14 where he learned Gaelic and who spent 2013 in China. There he learned mandarin so quickly that by the end of his stay he was appearing at comedy clubs joking in the native tongue.
Made in China, his current hour-plus show at the Barrow Street Theatre is, then, perhaps the only chance you'll ever get to see a comic work in those three tongues. Bishop is not only funny in all three -- be assured English prevails -- but there's something immensely likable about him as, in his suit and narrow tie, he rambles on. He's certainly a game guy, who, now that he's back and settling once again in Flushing, is worth knowing about.