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Orson Welles once said it was "vulgar to work for the sake of posterity" and then spent his later years tending to and obsessing over his legacy. But as Doug Wright tells it in his masterful new play Posterity, which opened this week at the Atlantic Theater Company, all of us must make peace with our own lasting impact. What will subsequent generations think of our contributions? Even more importantly, will they?
And that’s where we find playwright extraordinaire Henrik Ibsen, himself paranoid over the impression of future generations, and desperate to ensure that his art and vaunted reputation will survive unscathed. Meanwhile Gustav Vigeland, a sculptor tasked with preserving Ibsen’s likeness with a bust, is consumed with making a name for himself and building an ode to the common man that will stand the test of time. These outsized egos are brought by fate into each other’s orbit and their collision produces fireworks. With Ibsen fraught with fear over another artist’s rendering of him, and Vigeland enraged that he must pay tribute to a man he cares little for, the two must work together to produce something that strokes both their egos. But their confrontation reveals insecurities lurking beneath the surface. As the drama reaches its crescendo, it isn’t their egos that are feted, but their guilty consciences that are abated.
Artists purport to care little for how they are perceived, but what is so admirable about Wright's new play, is his ability to show the undercurrent of vanity, and paradoxically the stark insecurities, that all artists face as they approach the end. He shines a light on the all consuming fear that some face as we imagine our insignificance to those who follow in our footsteps. What starts as an exploration of an artist’s own motivation, becomes a morality play on our struggle with legacy.
Doug Wright, who has made a career of seamlessly stepping into the shoes of discarded figures of the past, does it again. The dialogue sings and the set evokes the workspace in which great artists would inhabit. Ibsen has been brought back deliciously whole from the dead. The various incarnations of the man, from his abrasive exterior to the earnest humility that his grandiosity conceals, has been rendered poignantly by Fringe's John Noble. Meanwhile Hamish Linklater (soon to be seen alongside Christopher Walken and Amber Heard in Robert Edwards' 2015 Festival feature When I Live My Life Over Again) continues his string of scintillating turns, this time humanizing Vigeland in his darkest hour as he works assiduously to see his passion project through.
But it’s Doug Wright’s words that so eloquently come to life. A play that is so hell bent on resurrecting the careers of our idols does something else unintentionally. It reminds us of the rousing careers of some of our own living greats that we often take for granted. And Doug Wright is certainly one of them. He need not worry about tending to his own posterity. His work does so on its own.
Posterity plays through April 5th at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater.
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