|Dan Kremer and Rebecca Harris in The Ghost-Writer.|
We've all heard of the "ghost in the machine," that famous tag for one of philosophy's central conundrums, the mind-body problem.
But now, in The Ghost-Writer (at the Merrimack Rep through May 13), playwright Michael Hollinger offers us the ghost in the type-writing machine: in this elegant three-hander, Hollinger conjures a late author who (perhaps) can still dictate from the great beyond, to the devoted secretary who has survived him, but has yet to complete his final novel - although she's working on it. Even if the jealous widow of her beloved is utterly determined that their illicit - spiritual collaboration, shall we say? - will never see the light of day.
This is, of course, the kind of basically-silly, but irresistibly-romantic conceit that can open out onstage into something deliciously evocative - in the right hands. And it's in almost the right hands at Merrimack. Director Charles Towers is clearly hoping to spark something like the spooky fire that made last season's thriller Tryst such a hit - and with the help of brilliant lighting designer Dan Kotlowitz, he does conjure a dozen different dramatic moods, each worthy of holding a séance by. Indeed, it's hard not to believe in ghosts - the hair all but stands up on the nape of your neck - when you're confronted by any of the louring dusks with which Kotlowitz has washed the nearly-bare Merrimack stage. (In fact I'd say next year's IRNE lighting design award already has a front-runner.)
|Photos: Meghan Moore|
The trouble is that, at least for a time, director Charles Towers, and actors Dan Kremer and Rebecca Harris, have taken Hollinger's precisely clipped words a little too much at their word, attending obsessively to the elocution of the text, while only nodding in the general direction of the emotions rising beneath it. Indeed, we only realize in retrospect that love has bloomed, and that Harris is now essentially Kremer's muse - or that at least she imagines she is.
Still, once love is indeed in the spectral air, there are several delicious shivers to be had in the play's final scenes - thanks largely to the perfectly pitched performance of Maureen Garrett as that not-so-grieving widow, who was always pleased to imagine that she was her famous husband's muse. And Hollinger does manage to tease a few amusingly ambiguous vibrations from the plight of his lonely amanuensis, her pale fingers poised over her dark keyboard as if it were a Ouija board, while one ear remains cocked to the spiritual plane. Is she indeed (as she believes) taking dictation from the dead? Or is she only indulging a delusion designed to stave off the painful reality of her passion's passing? Or - or - has her long collaboration with her virtual lover endowed her own imagination with something like his voice?
Even if these mild mind games fail to intrigue you - and even if you find Hollinger's meditations on artistic collaboration (he also wrote Opus, the popular tale of a struggling string quartet) fall flat - it's still hard not to be moved by the spooky stylishness of this production. Leaving it, you may discover a certain chill has filled your heart as you gaze at the setting sun . . . and is that just the wind in the chimney, or the echo of a howl from the great beyond? Is that only the scratch of a tree-branch at your windowpane? Or is it a dead voice whispering its lonely secrets in your ear . . ?