Cheryl David, left, Leland Crooke and Paige Lindsey White in 'Ghost-Writer'… (Suzanne Mapes )
“Ghost-Writer,” now in its West Coast premiere at International City Theatre, starts off sluggishly, with an extended expositional monologue that, while poetical, seems a somewhat logy way to commence.
Ignore that static prelude. Playwright Michael Hollinger, who has penned such well-regarded works as “Opus” and “Incorruptible,” soon has us in the grip of his assured creative hand.
The play was inspired by an anecdote about Henry James' secretary, who claimed she continued channeling the master's words after his death.
“Ghost-Writer” begins after the demise of Franklin Woolsey (Leland Crooke), an eminent American author whose longtime secretary, Myra Babbage (Paige Lindsey White), has garnered headlines with her insistence that she is in direct communication with her dead employer and is completing Woolsey's unfinished final masterwork posthumously. That doesn't sit well with Woolsey's widow, Vivian (Cheryl David), who has harbored jealous thoughts about her husband's amanuensis for years.
Of course, Vivian's instincts are astute. Myra is secretly infatuated with Woolsey, who eventually seems to return her regard. But as Myra interacts with Woolsey's lingering spirit, we are left to wonder whether she is in the grip of a wishful delusion or whether she is actually a supernatural conduit for a man unwilling to leave his magnum opus – and his unrequited love for Myra – unfinished.
That Jamesian ambiguity, particularly apt here, is just one example of Hollinger’s subtlety and craft. Staci Walters' comfortably lived-in set provides the perfect backdrop for Caryn Desai’s entertaining and well-paced staging. However, Desai misses a bet or two with her performers’ emotional subtexts. Lindsey’s ultimately moving portrayal should be tempered with a whiff more vulnerability earlier on, while David seems overly arch and mannered throughout. As for Crooke, his wonderfully realized Woolsey is the balancing fulcrum of the play, a sensitive turn as quietly intelligent as Hollinger’s text.
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“Ghost-Writer,” International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 16. $37-$44. (562) 436-4610. www.InternationalCityTheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.