March 29, 2000
photo: Michael LeGrand
Playwright Michael Hollinger is having a very good year. Now comes the big test: Can he conquer New York?
by David Warner
Its a cold winters day, but thats not the only reason playwright Michael Hollinger is walking hurriedly down W. 45th Street in New York City. Hes in a hurry because a major chapter in his career is about to unfold at a rehearsal in a tiny theater just a few steps beyond Kiss Me Kate and Les Miz.
This is not just any rehearsal. This is a step in the direction of the proverbial Big Break. This is the first readthrough for the NY professional premiere of Hollingers An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf.
Accompanying him are the theaters literary manager, Tricia McDermott, and a Villanova grad student named Clifford Marvin, whos shadowing Hollinger as part of his independent study in playwriting.
Tricia sees the future first: a beefy guy in a t-shirt, leaning against a lamppost and smoking a cigarette.
"Hello, Mr. Wendt," she says.
Its George Wendt, aka "NORM!" of Cheers.
Hes playing the lead in Empty Plate.
And despite the winter chill, Norm is sweating.
"I cant believe what kind of impact you have on people," the Shadow jokes to his professor.
His professor doesnt hear him.
"Hes on the cusp!" proclaims Michael Hollingers mother on a regular basis. "Hes on the cusp!"
Hollinger has heard it before. Not just from his mother, though its a favorite catchphrase of hers, but from critics and fans and Philly boosters who have long viewed him as a rising star.
But this year is different. Even though the hype makes him and wife Megan Bellwoar uncomfortable "If he were an accountant would we be getting this attention?" asks Bellwoar theres no arguing that right now, with three shows running in three different cities, hes in the middle of a kind of harmonic convergence.
His noir comedy Red Herring, at the Arden through Mar. 19, is so far the only Barrymore Recommended show of the 1999-2000 season and already one of the top-selling shows in the Ardens history. Tiny Island, which Philadelphia audiences saw in 1997, just opened at the Next Theater outside Chicago.
Most crucial of all, An Empty Plate in the Café du Grande Boeuf opens Mar. 8 at NYCs Primary Stages, a nonprofit professional theater known for producing new plays. Hollingers Off-Broadway debut, its blessed not only with a big-name star in the person of George Wendt, its got a hot director, John Rando, and award-winning producers Roy Gabay and Jeff Ash (Side Man, Wit, Three Tall Women).
So what if last year Hollinger, 38, pulled in no professional royalties at all? So what if there are some critics (City Papers Toby Zinman, for one) who resist his charms? So what if George Wendts performance is raising more questions than answers?
At the beginning of 2000, Hollinger (rhymes with singer) felt as if hed bought a bunch of lottery tickets. And so far, he says, "they all seem to be winning."
"Were hoping to put Michael on the national map," said John Rando last year. In town to direct David Ives Lives of the Saints for the Philadelphia Theatre Company, he began working with Hollinger on Empty Plate in 1998 at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA.
You could argue that Hollingers already on the national map. His four full-length plays, all of which received their professional premieres at the Arden, have since been produced across the country. Plate alone has had eight productions prior to Primary Stages, including one in London. But Rando was talking about theatrical geography, where the capital cities are Off-Broadway and Broadway, and the mapmakers are the reviewers for the New York Times.
A premiere at Primary Stages automatically reaches more people than it ever could in regional theaters, even though the theater seats only 99 people. Why? Location, location, location in other words, its a cab ride away from the Times.
"Professionally, this is a very important moment for him," says Villanova prof James Christy, who staged Empty Plate for NYs non-Equity Access Theatre in 1997. "If it gets reasonably positive reviews and a respectable run it gives him national credibility as a playwright."
But Casey Childs, the artistic director of Primary Stages, tries to downplay the moment.
"We dont want to put too much pressure on a writer in terms of what its going to mean for a career."
Hollinger has an enviable career by most playwrights standards: an artistic home at the Arden, numerous grants, teaching gigs.
But does all that add up to financial security? No.
"I didnt pay the mortgage last month," he says a few weeks before his NY opening. The sudden glut of opportunity in February and March "comes on the heels of the worst financial year weve ever had," adds his wife, an actress and a full-time drama instructor at the Abington Friends School. "Michael made next to nothing last year." They survived on her income from teaching and acting, and his part-time faculty gigs at Penn, Villanova and Beaver.
Not that the success of Empty Plate in NY will make or break them; there are plenty of irons in the fire. But because it has been optioned by Gabays company for possible commercial production in the future, its potentially the most lucrative. The 20-page contract was loaded with more clauses than Hollinger had ever dealt with before: subsidiary rights, foreign rights, English-productions-in-Australia rights (he was glad to let his agent, Mary Harden, handle them). The initial payment he received was just over $2,000, and actors (including Wendt) are working for scale, only $200 or so a week. But if the plays a hit, this Empty Plate could fill everyones pockets.
In the best-case scenario, says Gabay, "We create a buzz, get good reviews, move it to a commercial theater in New York."
And the worst? "If none of that happens, I still got Michaels play up in New York City, which is a great thing for him."
Hollingers similarly philosophical on what happens if the NY production flops.
"Im not going to be tarred and feathered," he says on the phone a month before opening.
"Actors, for reasons known only to themselves, consider it a breach of professional etiquette to read the play well the first time through."
So said playwright Moss Hart about 40 years ago, and its still true. At least it seems so today at Primary Stages.
George Wendts first reading is very low-key.
Grad student Marvin, not accustomed to this sort of thing, is stunned. He wants to ask somebody, "What the hell? Why did you cast this guy?"
But the star is also very well-prepared, with many questions about the script, most of which hes already memorized. Unfortunately, the version of the script hes memorized is a year and a half old, causing some consternation.
But its way too early to pass judgment, and theres certainly nothing to worry about. Hollinger and Marvin go out for dinner (French, of course) and a play.
"Youve made it!" Hollingers shadow tells him as they cross Times Square.
The various directors and producers who have elected to do An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf over the years agree on its appeal. With its mix of farce and philosophy, its European setting and sensual wordplay, it reminds Casey Childs of French playwrights Anouilh or Giraudoux.
James Christy, whos staged premieres by Bruce Graham and David Rabe, says the play has "a kind of intellectual thread combined with sweetness of temper. I dont know that anyone in America is doing anything quite like that."
All agree that the central role is a bear to play. Victor, a wealthy American newspaperman, owns the Paris café of the title and keeps it open as his own private dining room. One evening he announces that he wants to be served nothing, but will remain in the café until he starves to death. His loyal staff try all manner of ploys to get him to eat until Victor, who is given to self-dramatizing monologues and quotations from Hemingway, finally reveals the reason for his despair. The actor sits center stage for most of the play.
"Thats one of the things thats scary about the part," remembers Terry Nolen, who directed the 1994 premiere at the Arden (the first of Hollingers plays to be done there). "The guys incredibly exposed."
For the Berkshire Theatre Festival production, a number of stars names got bandied about for the lead: Brian Dennehy, Jon Voigt, even Burt Lancaster. Ken Howard was originally cast but left the production before rehearsals started; NY character actor Don Sparks, whom Rando had worked with before, took over and did a "fabulous" job, says Hollinger. Then, when casting rounds began for the NY production, George Wendt was available and Rando and Hollinger agreed that, besides his marquee appeal, he had the heft and the acting chops for the role.
"The journey to opening is always full of insecurities," says Terry Nolen.
In early February, a reporters request to visit a rehearsal of Empty Plate in New York is okayed through the productions publicist, then denied; George Wendt is feeling a little too "fragile" in the role to admit outside observers at this point.
But a few days later, Hollinger says that the rehearsal in question, a first "stumblethrough" of the entire play, went well. "I was surprised at how together it was."
Yes, he acknowledges, Wendt had been feeling "a little insecure." Usually called upon to be "the funny guy," this role requires him to play it straight, "sometimes to be a tyrant," and "it asks him to soar with language."
But Hollingers confident he can do it.
And to some extent the production is out of his hands. Its rehearsing in NY while hes in Philadelphia, and after eight productions the script is a more or less finished product.
"Were in sandpaper and varnish mode in New York," he says. "Here [with Red Herring] were sawing wood.
"Im feeling remarkably calm about it."
Michael Hollinger is a mensch: gracious, witty, a good listener. Hes handsome in a still-boyish, open way, and with his attractive wife and adorable son makes an entirely pleasant impression.
He knows his persona helps him get work.
"It didnt hurt that I was generally considered kind and collaborative and hard-working," he says of his success. "No one makes enough money in this business to work with someone you hate."
His experience as a literary manager reading and helping choose plays for the now-defunct Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays (and later for the Wilma) showed him firsthand how important a playwrights attitude can be.
"If playwrights are difficult you shy away, because youre getting in bed with these people for a few months. Its going to be hell."
Bruce Graham, who was Festival Theatres resident playwright, praises Hollingers tact. "He knows how to dwell on the positive first and then jab you," he says.
Megan Bellwoar was responsible for jump-starting her husbands affiliation with the Arden. While working as assistant to producing artistic director Nolen in 1994, she asked him to read Empty Plate. At that point he hardly knew Hollinger; he accepted the script with some trepidation and didnt open it till he was sitting in bed at 1 a.m., figuring hed skim it and return it the next day. Instead, he says, it was "total love at first sight." Within 24 hours hed met with Hollinger and committed Arden to doing the play.
Since then the two have established a solid relationship based on mutual trust and similar outlooks. "Were both tireless and perfectionists by nature," says Hollinger.
The intricately plotted Red Herring went through more cuts and changes than perhaps any of the scripts theyd worked on together, cut from 30 scenes to 25 (so far) at the Arden. But the cast was "a dream," taking it all with equanimity. And despite two unfortunate deaths (Hollinger lost his cat and his hard drive on the same day) and one impending birth (Terrys wife Amy Murphy, the Ardens managing director, went in for a caesarian the first week of production), the Nolen-Hollinger collaboration proved fruitful once more.
Which is all the more impressive when you consider that their first experience together on Empty Plate was fraught with disaster. As the second week of rehearsals began, Nolens wife had a terrible riding accident; a horse threw her into a wall, breaking her jaw, her ribs, pretty much her entire left side. Nolen returned to rehearsals once she was out of danger to be greeted by more bad news.
The lead actor wanted out. A New York character man in a play he didnt trust with actors he didnt know, he had become "frightened and belligerent a fish out of water," remembers Hollinger.
For Nolen, that was the least of his problems. He had just received the good news/bad news that no, his wife wasnt brain-damaged but yes, she might be deaf. (The latter, thankfully, did not turn out to be true either.) He took the actors announcement in stride. If he needed to leave, that was "totally okay."
The actor stayed. And even though morale was low (Nolen heard one actor say backstage, "This is gonna suck!") the play opened to good houses and decent, even glowing reviews. Hollinger had his first hit.
photo: Michael LeGrand
"I was waiting for the other shoe to drop," says Hollinger.
Wendt, not an actor youd associate with showy verbal eloquence, nevertheless has to navigate Victors florid narratives in a way thats comfortable for him. "He doesnt want to fake anything," says Hollinger.
So his solution for now, his "default choice," in Hollingers words, is "a small choice."
Hollingers task now, though, is to support, not criticize the actors. "Knowing certain things this actor could do is not as important as telling people they were great, bringing them baked goods."
Hes also still scrutinizing the play, listening for beats and pauses ("Im dogged about them") and tinkering with the words. "Right now I have four or five lines that I think should be different."
And now that theres an audience, hell watch them to see when their heads move and their butts shift.
"The trick is to get people so interested that they forget their bodies. When its a big laugh, you know its working well when everyones butts move at the same time."
If Michael Hollingers plays have not always won unanimous critical praise, there is one reviewer in Philadelphia who has consistently championed his potential: the Inquirers Clifford Ridley. His review of Empty Plate confidently announced the arrival of an artist to watch: "He has a singular voice and singular world view, and I look forward to his next play even as I savor this one." Subsequently, Ridley praised Incorruptible (1996) as "a piece of remarkably dexterous craftsmanship," expressed reservations about 1997s Tiny Island but complimented it as "felicitously written," and this year helped launch Red Herring with a suggestion that Hollingers agent might need to add an extra phone line.
Though Hollinger has yet to win a Barrymore for Best New Play, Empty Plate and Incorruptible were both nominated and a third nomination seems inevitable for Herring. The numerous productions and awards the Haas Fellowship for an Emerging Theater Artist, the three Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grants, an Independence Foundation fellowship to research a new play in the Galapagos Islands suggest hes striking chords in readers and audiences.
Yet not everyone hears the same music. UArts prof Toby Zinman has reviewed Hollingers plays in City Paper and Variety and remains distinctly unamused. In print she dismissed Tiny Island as inconsequential, excoriated Incorruptible as sitcom theater and damned Empty Plate with faint praise. Over the phone she is kinder, but only slightly: "He seems to me a very smart person, and yet he writes in a way that seems to diminish what he could do. Boeuf worked with a background of literary familiarity that it then ditched as if the audience wouldnt get it. Maybe I feel patronized."
But, she acknowledges, this may just be a matter of taste. "Everyone seemed to find Red Herring hilarious except me."
Like, for instance, the audience member overheard after a performance of Stoppards Invention of Love at the Wilma: "This was all right, but if you want some real entertainment you should go see Red Herring."
Jiri Zizka, for whom Hollinger worked part time as the Wilmas dramaturg from 1994-97, describes the playwrights work as "mainstream If you know Michael his plays are sort of like him. They are warm and humorous. Theyre not going to change your perception of the world. Its more comforting."
Is his very accessibility a drawback? Hollinger has applied for the Pew Fellowships in the Arts in the two years that awards were presented for scriptworks, but has yet to make it to finalist. (He is applying again this year.) Christy was on the local peer panel during the second year the category was offered (along with Zinman, German Wilson, Mark Lord and Stacia Friedman). He says that Hollinger did not make it to the finals because his work was perceived as lacking "present social weight," though Christy argued for him.
Hollingers plays can seem "too eager to please," he suspects. While he thinks Empty Plate is "terrific a light farce with psychosexual complexity," Incorruptible seemed nothing but a farce, while Tiny Island, about two estranged middle-aged sisters meeting again at their familys old movie house, erred too far for his taste in the direction of sentimentality. (He had not seen Red Herring at the time of our conversation.)
Hollinger needs to find the "balance between irony, playfulness and sentiment that makes a good souffle instead of a flat souffle," says Christy. For his work to grow in significance, "the intellectual moral stakes that he suggests in his plays would have to be higher and the wit would have to service those higher stakes which it does sometimes rather than ingratiate so much."
Its true there are times in Hollingers plays where youre disappointed by his apparent inability to resist a punch line. In his short play Song of Solomon, recently seen at InterAct, a throwaway joke about parking meters sounds like the playwright talking, not the character. And yet for every quip that falls flat, there is a delicious Hollinger conceit like the time-delayed transatlantic phone call in Red Herring that delights by its sheer inventiveness at the same time it advances the plot.
To be fair, Hollinger is acutely aware of the need to keep stretching himself. Each of his four full-lengths is different from the others, and hes not afraid of taking risks the wistful mood of Tiny Island, for instance, was a marked departure from the knockabout antics of Incorruptible. (The Galapagos play promises to step off in still another direction.) He says hes learned that "clever wears a little thin" and that his plays benefit when he starts "letting some blood in" in Terry Nolens words, exposing "more of his heart and soul and spirit."
Both Nolen and Hollinger speak fondly of one scene they believe accomplishes this in Red Herring. Its an encounter in a bar between a hard-boiled woman detective named Maggie and a Russian fisherman named Andrei, a key player in an espionage subplot. In a departure from the main action, Andrei offers Maggie, whos estranged from her would-be fiancè, a parable about marriage. "Its my favorite thing that Michael has written," says Nolen, who sees in it a greater willingness on Hollingers part to draw directly on his own life.
It is a charming scene, but whats best about it isnt the parable: its the fact that the fisherman, while conversing, is drinking his vodka with a spoon. Thats the touch that takes this exchange beyond homilies into a whimsical but very particular world. The domestic advice is nice, but its the spoonful of vodka that helps the medicine go down.