The Washington Post
January 17, 1984

PBS' Studies in Character
By Tom Shales

"The Ghost Writer," tonight's third-season premiere of the "American Playhouse" series on public TV, may find a warm welcome in certain chic neighborhoods of Manhattan or in darkest academe, but the play does not offer much foractual human beings to munch on.  Philip Roth and Tristram Powell adapted Roth's 1979 novel for television, obviously with an eye toward making this as arduous an exercise as possible for the viewer.

The 90-minute film, at 9 on Channel 26, is preoccupied largely with Roth's ide'e fixe, a Jew's lifelong wrestling match with his Jewishness.  It concerns an ingenuous young writer (Mark Linn-Baker, the ingenuous young writer of "My Favorite Year") who visits a successful 60-year-old author (Sam Wanamaker) at his isolated, in every sense of the word, farmhouse in the Berkshires.

There the young man encounters the author's moody wife (Claire Bloom) and a mysterious young woman (Paulette Smit) who has entranced the older man by claiming to be Anne Frank, inexplicably alive after all.  By the time the play is over, one isn't certain if these people actually exist or are just figments of the young writer's imagination.  The problem is, one doesn't much care, either.  The travails suffered by writers have never been very dramatizable, and this play hardly breaks from that tradition.

Director Powell certainly keeps a tight grip on the situation, and the austere cinematography by Kenneth MacMillan is unusually handsome for a television film.  But the play satiates itself on endless talk, little of it fascinating, and the character studies all seem maddeningly muted.  The old author's quandaries--should he teach at Harvard?  Must he attend dinner parties while there?  Will he ever retire to "a villa outside Florence"?--are tiresome and banal, but Wanamaker and Bloom do have moments in which they make the woebegone couple hauntingly resplendent.

"American Playhouse" remains a commendable public TV enterprise, one to be unquestioningly encouraged.