Posterity is an unexpected, fascinating and brilliant play performed by great actors.

It’s 1901 and as the end of life draws near for great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, the City of Oslo (Kristiana at the time) seeking to commemorate him with a portrait bust, awards the commission to the sculptor, Gustav Vigeland.   Thus begins a play of titanic struggle between and within – between the playwright and the sculptor, and within their souls.

Both have reasons to want the Ibsen portrait and to distrust it, to hate it.  They’re both opinionated, individualistic, and self-centered, and with their own set of agendas.  They enrage one another to a fury but respect each other’s intelligence, creating dazzling verbal wordplay.

The flint on flint sparks of their vehement arguments illuminate great issues of literature, art and life:  they’re so intelligent, and so precise in their use of language, we actually begin to think they’ll straighten out the big problems for us!  This is no philosophy talking though – it’s all about character and will.  The play is visually marvelous but it could be joy just to listen to these two bright and impassioned men who, for all their agitation, know how to stay on the point!

Vigeland, as the play sees him, wants to do the Ibsen portrait for money and for his own artistic repute — not for their own sakes but to make possible his grand creative purpose, a commission for a complex, symbolic, monumental civic sculpture. On the other hand, Vigeland despises having to do this or any portrait – portraits, for him, are hackwork to pay the bills which, however, he’s barely managing to do.

Ibsen is surprisingly reluctant to sit for the sculptor and when he does, he’s difficult, irascible, threatening to leave, throwing the cocky Vigeland into a humiliating scramble to keep him.  Why is Ibsen so conflicted, so willing and unwilling to have his portrait made?  After all, he’s not paying it!  The playwright is already famous world-wide. What’s wrong with one more jewel in his crown for posterity?

John Noble’s first entrance as Ibsen is stunning: he’s looming, bold, proud, mysterious and inaccessible as a rock.  This dramatic “portrait” of Ibsen recalls Rodin’s great author portrait of the same period, the Monument to Balzac.  It’s very likely that this momentous first look Posterity gives us of Ibsen was designed after the Balzac (check out that link) – an admirable and pertinent concept.

After the lofty impenetrability of Ibsen’s first appearance, it’s all the more astonishing as the softer and less certain sides of the man emerge.  Noble looks much like Ibsen in the part, mutton-chop whiskers and all (link to Ibsen’s portrait in the third paragraph above) , and by the end of the play, I felt I’d seen and come to know the man himself.  Through Noble’s extraordinary characterization, we come to understand why Ibsen both does and doesn’t want Vigeland’s portrait to be created.

Here is the fundamental, breathtaking conflict.  Ibsen is lionized for virtue, for truth telling in his plays, for the highest human values, but he knows another seamier and cruel side to his life at odds with those high ideals.  He wants to shape his image for posterity, but not in the expected way.

As he draws near to death, he’s burdened by the knowledge of  his ignoble actions.   He has it in mind to control posterity’s view of him, but, as Wright’s originality and deep view sees it, in a surprising way.  Ibsen’s struggle within holds all the suspense of a gripping mystery, with unlooked for turns.  The stakes are high — at times you catch you breath with concern!  The resolution is deeply moving.

In the role of the sculptor Vigeland, the creative idealist constrained by reality, Hamish Linklater is funny, canny, scrappy, smart, opportunistic, befuddled, and with perfect timing.   He’s a charismatic performer: if he’s in it, I want to see it.

Dale Soules is touching and true as a gullible and tender housekeeper seeking her own link to posterity. Henry Stram, with a fascinating ironic smile, is exciting to watch as the sharp solicitor and Vigeland’s fast-talking  representative.

As Vigeland’s apprentice, Mickey Theis does an able job as a quixotic counterpart to the edgy but ultimately realistic and successful Vigeland (who, by the way, among many other works, designed the Nobel Peace Prize medal).

In 2004, Doug Wright won the Pulitzer Prize for his play I Am My Own Wife:  he ought to win the Pulitzer Prize for Posterity (though it’s “Off-Broadway”):  Posterity is even deeper, more complex, and more broadly meaningful.

Vigeland’s fine portrait of Ibsen is “only a bust”: playwright Doug Wright and John Noble’s masterful interpretation have given us a total portrait: not only full length, it lets us see within as well as without.

Posterity plays at The Atlantic Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through April 5, 2015.