Wes and Nancy Westlund have two house guests and one problem. Fifty dollars is missing from Wes' wallet. They do not suspect Matt (Michael Canavan), a musicologist and old friend who is in town delivering a controversial paper at Harvard. Signs point to Kim (Jane Fleiss), Matt's girlfriend-researcher.
In Cambridge, Kim's surly demeanor, untamed curls and revealing silk blouses just do not radiate reliability. Whether they radiate sexual heat for Wes (Stephen Rowe), a cautious, cardigan-wearing religion professor, is another chapter in the story.
First produced at Steppenwolf Theatre, David Gilman's "Ghost in the Machine" is having its West Coast premiere at South Coast Repertory. The play takes infinite pleasure in considering conundrums of appearance and reality. Playing detective, Nancy (Wendy Robie) finds a folded $50 bill secreted away at the bottom of Kim's cosmetic case. Does this mean Kim has stolen the money?
Nancy recovers, or steals, the bill. Wes and Nancy think they can solve the human puzzle that they have set in motion. They decide: If Kim appears worried and inquires if anybody else has found anything missing, then she didn't take the money. If she says nothing, she's clearly a thief. Unless, of course, Kim is thinking along these same lines and responds strategically.
"Ghost" is a vastly entertaining whodunit, a chess game with human pieces, that does not limit itself to questions of petty thievery. Also at issue: How can we believe in the existence of things we can't prove, like goodness in others, or, for that matter, God? The play examines the relationship between moral relativism and probability theories both in life and in science. It is an odd cross between Tom Stoppard's "Hapgood" and Jonathan Tolins' "Twilight of the Golds," with dashes of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "The Next Voice You Hear"--the 1950s movie in which God addresses America on the radio.
Matt's paper on an experimental composer, Minh Schumann, provides a parallel to the story's human intrigue. He believes he has uncovered a profoundly important pattern in the composer's compositions, which are created by using a computer to convert random number patterns into sound waves, which in turn are represented by randomly selected pre-recorded sounds, which in turn are pushed through computerized, rule-guided but random permutations and combinations to create a final piece. In the vast and unordered density of Schumann's work, Matt believes he has located the first five measures of a 16th-Century choral work by Martin Luther. In other words, Matt has discovered a naturally occurring order in the midst of chaos. Call it meaning, or call it God. Or maybe it's all a hoax.
Gilman teases us with philosophical questions on the nature of reality, only to brush them aside for what he knows is the truly irresistible mystery: Exactly who is sleeping with whom?
David Emmes directs the play as a riveting tennis game in which the characters dare each other to play honestly without ever really doing so themselves. The women are particularly good. Fleiss brings an unreadable toughness that keeps us guessing about Kim until the very end. As her foil, Robie exudes the ditsy strength of the young Eve Arden. Her Nancy is both warm and formidable. When she finally tells off Kim, Kim admits, "If she hadn't been talking to me, I'd have felt like applauding."
Gerard Howland designed the intricate set, a tromp l'oeil backdrop that serves as the Westlund's beautiful apartment and that ingeniously repeats the play's themes of illusion and reality. Its rich amber tones celebrate the material solvency that a life of scholarship can sometimes bring. At the same time this painted-on room reminds you that all security is a momentary illusion.
The play features an awkward epilogue, a rather snide lecture by Minh Schumann (Eric Steinberg), delivered from a second tier atop the set, on which the composer is inexplicably climbing on some kind of steel tower. Rolling his head sensually like a cliched evil genius, Schumann merely restates a theme of the play--that nothing is knowable--and gives us a convenient villain on which to hang any unsolved crimes.
For all its flirtation with scientific thought, "Ghost in the Machine" is less about the chaos of the universe than it is about the chaos of the human heart. For that reason, the play's coda seems a mistake, a cheesy bid for a coup de theatre that misses an elemental truth: We have met the ghost and he is us.
* "Ghost in the Machine," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2:30 p.m., Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Ends April 2. $26-$36. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
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Stephen Rowe: Wes Westlund Wendy Robie: Nancy Westlund Michael Canavan: Matt Carroll Jane Fleiss: Kim Goldfarb Hal Landon Jr.: Llewelyn Harper Eric Steinberg: Minh Schumann A South Coast Repertory production. By David Gilman. Directed by David Emmes. Set by Gerard Howland. Costumes by Dwight Richard Odle. Lights by Tom Ruzika. Music and sound composition by Michael Roth. Production manager Michael Mora.