'Ghost-Writer' at the Arden, about writing, typing, love
Michael Hollinger's fine new Ghost-Writer starts off the Arden season with a quiet bang. This engrossing, old-fashioned play is about the drama of writing - and typing - and creativity and love. People who care about semicolons (and you know who you are), this show is for you.
Michael Hollinger's fine new
starts off the Arden season with a quiet bang. This engrossing, old-fashioned play is about the drama of writing - and typing - and creativity and love. People who care about semicolons (and you know who you are), this show is for you.
The plot is the least of it: Franklin Woolsey (Douglas Rees), a famous novelist, hires Myra Babbage (Megan Bellwoar), a "typewriter girl"; he dictates his novel to her (comma) including punctuation (full stop). Their working relationship continues for years, growing more and more intense and intuitive, until he drops dead in midsentence. She then finishes that last novel, arousing both general suspicion and his wife's (Patricia Hodges) jealousy. (Worth noting: Dostoevsky dictated The Gambler to a secretary, and yes, reader, she married him.) Bellwoar's steely, modest amanuensis has more in common with Jane Eyre than with most contemporary dramatic characters.
Reading a novel - and writing a novel - is a radically intimate experience: just you and the page. Writing a play, however lonely an enterprise, assumes a collaborative experience involving many people. Hollinger daringly uses one genre to create another, creating dialogue out of fictional narration. Further, as he creates his novelistic script, he gives us snippets of the novel Woolsey has been writing, so we see his characters, an artist and his model, on the dance floor as their love is rekindled. But we've already heard about (not seen, although we imagine it so vividly) Myra and her real-life boyfriend waltzing. We also see Myra teaching Woolsey to do the fox-trot.
The tantalizing layers pile up (not the least being that Bellwoar is the wife of the playwright) as this understated and lovely play proceeds. James Christy's direction is courageous enough to make us sit and watch somebody type, and the sound design by Jorge Cousineau makes charming use of antique noises: a gramophone, a shrill, just-invented telephone, and a clicking manual typewriter. The costumes, especially the magnificent clothes worn by Mrs. Woolsey, were designed by Charlotte Cloe Fox Wind.
As Woolsey, Rees creates an uncanny absent presence. As Mrs. Woolsey, Hodges sweeps into the room, tall, glamorous, imperious; she sweeps out again.
But it is Bellwoar who carries the play. Her fluty, firm voice creates a Myra who is always self-possessed yet always devoted, and her intelligent face reveals a range of subtly drawn emotions. It is a remarkable, nuanced performance.
Finally, Ghost-Writer is about language (note, please, the importance of the hyphen in the title); the play is filled with the written language of turn-of-the-century fiction, language we hardly ever hear spoken aloud today: "throngs," "the better part of the work" (meaning longer, not superior), "the scrutiny of an interloper." And, in this extraordinary marriage between fiction and theater, ours in the scrutiny, we are the interlopers. It's like having your play and reading it, too.