Steppenwolf Theatre Company

David Gilman’s Ghost in the Machine begins with one of those petty occurrences that can turn a rational person into a fixated nut case: the loss of a $50 bill. It quickly proceeds to a mystery of much larger implications: the discovery, in a densely layered piece of electronic music, of a possible sign from God. From these two events Gilman mines a slew of questions, ranging from suspicion of fraud to speculation about the moral implications of bewildering new technology. Can a computer have a soul? Is there a (holy) ghost in the machine?

Though he reveals key clues as shrewdly as any suspense novelist, Gilman never answers the questions he raises; in this intellectual/metaphysical whodunit, the audience is never sure exactly what was done, not to mention by whom. Answers, after all, are a form of reconciliation; and Ghost in the Machine is about irreconcilable differences–between the sexes, between generations, between values, between cultures.

On the surface, Ghost suggests a 1990s version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a viciously funny parade of historically loaded psychosexual party games among a quartet of east-coast academics. The setting is the home of Wes and Nancy Westlund–he’s a professor of comparative religion, she’s a musicologist–and, like Edward Albee’s George and Martha, they’ve got guests. Not just drop-ins for a drink, but houseguests: Matt Carroll, a musicologist friend of Nancy’s, and his girlfriend Kim. Wes, Nancy, and Matt are in their 40s; Kim is in her 20s. She’s an outsider here not only because of her age but because, while her companions’ professional specialties focus on the past, hers focuses on the future: she’s a computer scientist and a specialist in game theory. (She’s also the only Jew in a nest of WASPs–an issue that, while never raised overtly, is all too clear in the condescending sneer with which her last name, Goldfarb, is articulated.)

Matt, a disciple seeking something to believe in, thinks he has found his musical messiah in a young Vietnamese American composer named Minh Schumann. Schumann’s music, never heard, is described by Matt (in a hilarious satire of artistic abstruseness) as a ludicrously coded aleatory electronic serialism in which the grunt of a rutting pig makes as much artistic sense as the sound of a clarinet. Randomness is built into Schumann’s computer composing style–so it was quite a shock when Kim’s computer analysis of Schumann’s “Cambodian Requiem” revealed a barely audible but fully developed quotation from Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Could it be a sign from the Lord? A random happening of news-making improbability? Or fraud? And if fraud, whose? Kim seems a likely culprit. Wes and Nancy already believe she’s stolen $50 from Wes’s wallet; it was her computer program that discovered (or planted) the quotation; she later reveals herself to be an accomplished liar and seductress; and besides, she’s just so damn different. (Schumann himself is never seriously considered; after all, he’s an artist–and, though it’s never stated so baldly, a man.) As suspicion centers on Kim, a series of neat, nasty twists forces startling revelations of the fatal flaws in everyone’s character.

A writer who mixes a mischievous youthful tone with seasoned, mature insight, Gilman teases his viewers’ various prejudices about character and behavior to ingenious effect–this is one of those plays destined to dominate postshow conversation, for it leaves so much to the presumptions and perceptions of each viewer. By the time Ghost in the Machine is finished, we’re not sure whom we can trust, but we know it’s not ourselves.

An impressive and sharp-witted first effort at a full-length play, Ghost in the Machine benefits enormously from a slick, carefully detailed, deceptively selective staging by Jim True (making his Steppenwolf mainstage directorial debut). Designed with a sleek starkness by Kevin Rigdon (set), Christine A. Solger (lights), Eric Huffman (sound), and Allison Reeds (costumes), the production is perfectly played by the four leads: Randall Arney, blandly self-possessed as the devious Wes; Martha Lavey, taut and elegant as his equivocating wife; Rick Snyder as Matt, beatifically suffused with wonder and joy until he begins to crack under doubt and self-loathing; and Mariann Mayberry, sexy and strange as the enigmatic, bratty, but brilliant Kim, the victim and/or villain of the piece. Del Close is reliably sardonic as Matt’s power-puffed publisher; and Evan Chen (a composer in real life) is coolly chilling as Schumann, speaking on video to better underscore his character’s distance from the controversy he stirs in this taut, tricky, smart little play.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.