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A CurtainUp Review

I do not write at all. I type. I come, I sit, I wait for the words.—Myra Babbage
Douglas Rees as Franklin Woolsey and Megan Bellwoar as Myra Babbage (Photo: Mark Garvin)
Ghost-Writer, the seventh world premiere of a Michael Hollinger play at the Arden, introduces a vintage world to Arden's Arcadia stage. The evocative aural backdrop is even more compelling than the set design or the beautiful lighting. The sound design blends the interplay of words and silence with the clack of an old upright manual typewriter, the ring of a candlestick telephone, and period music played on a Victrola.

For years Myra Babbage (Megan Bellwoar), a typist, helped writer Franklin Woolsey (Douglas Rees) turn out his novels. Woolsey trained her and she, in her way, influenced him. After awhile they could read each other like a book. Maybe.

Isolated together in a rented office, the writer dictates in short bursts and the secretary types. They wait for inspiration. When Woolsey is at a loss, Myra repeatedly types a sequence of keystrokes and carriage shifts whose rhythms evoke his buried ideas. Later, when he has died, she continues to hit those keys, creating the arrangement of sounds that apparently locks her into his authorial voice, and the deceased man's work continues to flow.

Although Woolsey is dead, he is alive in memory — real and/or imagined for two thirds of the play. For the last third he is there, but dead. As Woolsey, Rees has just the right sort of presence. Well directed by James J. Christy, he is precise, restrained, stodgy. He's a man of his times — which in the course of this play spans from just after the turn of the previous century until the eve of the twenties. He dictates, and a book spills out of his mouth fully formed, the old fashioned way, complete with punctuation. He is "exceedingly fond" of certain constructions, like the hyphen, which can delineate meaning by simultaneously joining and separating two words, like "gentleman-farmer." Or, for instance, like "ghost-writer."

Woolsey's widow (Patricia Hodges) long resentful of the years her husband spent alone in a room with Myra has a new concern. The typist claims that Vivian's deceased husband is finishing his novel, dictating it to her. Although Myra insists that she is not writing, only typing, Vivian Woolsey responds," Well then it's just you alone in a room. That's what's called being a writer."

Curiously, although Mrs. Vivian Woolsey does not want "this bastard novel," she continues to pay the rent on the office. Patricia Hodges as Vivian is an overly broad stroke, and quite funny. She is a breath of sharply dressed, smart, annoying fresh air.

The action of the play actually begins when Vivian sends someone to visit Myra and investigate this suspicious novel writing. Either the investigator is posited as a character sitting in the direction of the audience, or is personified by the audience. Myra, in direct address, tells her version of what has transpired, and the critical characterization of Myra falters.

This play is something precious, almost private, like something you might have found in a charming antique shop. It is an ambiguous, touching, old fashioned approach to a story about the writing of a book. Maybe it is about a transference of some kind (maybe not), or a relationship— - a lonely woman, maybe a lonely man (maybe not). The playwright's words, with humorous subtlety, conjure a gentler past through Myra's personal disclosure to the audience. The live manifestation of her character, however, seems incompatible with what the writing itself portrays, for Myra's words are declaimed in a sustained, perky recitation, set on auto-cadence.

This is why, for instance, Myra's convivial offers of tea, addressed to the audience-as-investigator (?), don't come off. The approach chosen for her character's delivery does not allow the intimacy of the written text's proffer of tea. There's nothing entre-nous about her performance. This also accounts for the way that much of the written playfulness sometimes slips away almost unnoticed. And yet Bellwoar's performance at the close of the play is affecting: As long as the novel continues, Woolsey is still there for Myra. But when the work is over, he is over, and she must let him go. The actress makes the sadness of this moment palpable.

For a concept piece that ostensibly turns on one point, the emphasis is not where you might reasonably imagine it would be. There's little speculation on the intriguing question about what sort of mechanism might allow a typist to hear dictation and complete a dead man's novel. The central question about the delicate posthumous writing process (Is the long-time secretary channeling her boss, making it up, or fooling herself?) is eclipsed. Myra has divined a romantic undercurrent beneath the daily routine— most likely unrequited. The writer's reticence would seem to preclude his ardent words and actions that she remembers or daydreams. The play suggests that what is true for one person may or may not be true for another. In fact, what may be true for one person may not even be true for that person. No one weighs in at the end, and uncertainty remains.

Ghost-Writer by Michael Hollinger
Directed by James J. Christy

Cast: Meghan Bellwoar , Patricia Hodges, Douglas Rees
Set Design: David Gordon
Costume Design: Chloe Fox Wind
Lighting Design: Jerrold R. Forsyth
Sound Design: Jorge Cousineau
Sept 9- Nov 7, 2010
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Arden Theatre Co.
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 09/25 performance.
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