Through June 16
1201 North Royal Street Alexandria
It’s not every day that a respectable secretary with a talent for punctuation becomes fodder for New York City’s tabloid press, but in Michael Hollinger’s 2010 drama “Ghost-Writer” (now at MetroStage) that’s just what happens.
When popular novelist Franklin Woolsey (Paul Morella) drops dead in the middle of dictating his latest book, loyal typist Myra Babbage (Susan Lynskey) forges ahead, channeling her beloved boss’ words from the beyond. While Myra’s unorthodox approach to wrapping things up is a hit with Woolsey’s editor and the curious public, the novelist’s jealous widow is none too thrilled.
Set in 1919 Manhattan, the odd workplace tale unfolds in Woolsey’s comfortable but unpretentious studio. Myra is seated at her typing table facing an unseen investigator (the audience). In wordy monologue and flashbacks she relays just how she came to be a literary medium.
Fresh out of secretarial school, Myra’s hired to take dictation from the businesslike Woolsey. A whiz at the clunky manual typing machine, she never misses a word. As weeks become months and then years, she respectfully but firmly corrects his punctuation and eerily develops the ability to anticipate his prose. The process moves to the outskirts of collaboration, and a close but chaste relationship evolves. There is no longer any mention of Thursday night dance classes or potential husbands. As Myra becomes more heavily immersed in Woolsey and his work, outside distractions fade away. Her focus narrows.
Occasionally the formidable and fashionably turned out Mrs. Woolsey (Helen Hedman) pays unannounced visits to her husband’s studio. A dilettante poet who once transcribed her husband’s novels by hand, she resents her husband’s secretary. After all it is Myra with whom Woolsey spends the lion’s share of his waking hours. And while she finds some comfort that Myra is less pretty than her predecessor, Mrs. Woolsey would still rather she go away. But Myra isn’t cowed; the studio is her domain and Woolsey belongs partly to her too.
“Ghost-Writer” is cleanly staged by John Vreeke (who is gay). In lesser hands, this delicately rendered memory play/ghostly mystery/love story might be a sappy mishmash, but Vreeke’s direction is insightfully keen and well-ordered and his outstanding three-person cast gives thoughtful, restrained performances. He’s also assembled a particularly cohesive design team. Together Alexander Keen’s evocative lighting, Jane Fink’s suggestion of walls and Robert Garner’s distant dance class music and steam whistle from the East river, play beautifully to the concepts of memory and the metaphysical.
At first glance, Lynskey’s Myra is the picture of no-nonsense practicality — pulled back hair and plain attire. But keep looking and you’ll detect a sly smile and twinkly eye behind the steel-rimmed spectacles; her character is no mere typing automaton. Her Myra has an inner world filled with romance and the flourishes of art and music. For her, awaiting Woolsey’s next utterance is an exquisite pleasure. Typing each page is an adventure. Lynskey captures all the layers.
Morella is terrific as Woolsey. He affectively melts from brusque boss to kindly colleague. And as Mrs. Woolsey, Hedman is a marvelous balance of overbearing and vulnerable. It’s a touching performance.
“Ghost Writer” is inspired by the real life happenings of famed gay novelist Henry James and his longtime secretary Theodora Bosanquet. Like Myra, the devoted Bosanquet did what she could to keep the literary master’s words flowing. Unlike Myra, she didn’t hold a torch for her boss. Bosanquet reportedly preferred women.