It is 1919 in the enjoyably bookish drama “Ghost-Writer,” and the novelist Franklin Woolsey has just died. Yet his typist, Myra Babbage, continues to type, insisting that she’s just finishing his novel.
“What is so mysterious about that?” she asks innocently.
Well, heck. Is she taking dictation from the dead? Trying to make her name by dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of the Great Man’s Last Work?
Michael Hollinger’s 90-minute play feels like midlist fiction as he ponders Myra’s case (Inspired? Love-struck? Spooked?). But the three actors in John Vreeke’s disciplined production at MetroStage are such crisp speakers and quick thinkers that they give this diversion a stylish kick.
The poised cast is led by Susan Lynskey, whose Myra is winningly articulate and prim (pinned-up hair; oval glasses; long, blue dress — the early-20th-century young librarian look). Myra is being observed by a spy sent by Woolsey’s suspicious widow, Vivian; this character is unseen, so Myra, like Salieri in “Amadeus,” essentially delivers her explanations to us.
Lynskey couldn’t be more personable or rational as she describes working with Woolsey, a character we meet in flashback scenes. Paul Morella is impressively businesslike as the novelist, unspooling long sentences that are as professionally immaculate as his three-piece suit. As Woolsey dictates, Myra efficiently and adoringly clatters away at the manual typewriter; when they get on a roll, the rapid sound is like firecrackers.
The fifth wheel is the flamboyantly dressed Vivian, played with strong doses of intelligence and pride by Helen Hedman. Vivian swans in and out wearing intimidatingly fashionable dresses with matching hats, and you sense that her wardrobe isn’t mere plumage but power. (The costumes are by Ivania Stack.) Vivian is jealous of Myra’s connection with her husband, which appears to be continuing beyond the grave. Why, she demands, does this typing go on?
Hollinger’s plot is reportedly based on the relationship between novelist Henry James and his typist, Theodora Bosanquet (who is also the subject of the Michiel Heyns novel “The Typewriter’s Tale” and Cynthia Ozick’s short story “Dictation”). The play is relatively light, but it moves its freight briskly, and Alexander Keen’s shadowy, pinpoint lighting is notably good as haunting becomes the theme.
Vreeke’s actors make rewardingly adult work of their early-20th-century characters; they are deft enough to wring high comedy from a dispute about a semicolon. Full marks all around for such period flair.
by Michael Hollinger. Directed by John Vreeke. Set design, Jane Fink; sound design, Robert Garner. About 90 minutes. Through June 2 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. 800-494-8497. www.metrostage.org.