March 29, 2000
Favorite Son, part 2
continued from here
Arriving at Primary Stages for the first preview, Hollinger is suddenly immersed in impromptu reunions. Standing on the sidewalk in the glow of the small marquee, hes greeted by Ron Jacoby, the artistic director of his parents community theater. An old friend from his Oberlin days drops by to surprise him. His agent is here. The producers and the casting director are here. The literary manager is apologetically asking if Hollinger can do a symposium she forgot to ask him about (he cant). And everyone is giving him as positive a spin as possible on the show: "Its going well, all they need is an audience, etc., etc."
Inside, theres more conversation in the tiny lobby, more goodwill. And when George Wendt makes his first entrance onto the compact but opulent set an elegant Parisian bistro perfectly appointed right down to the wallpaper he gets star applause.
At first the audience laughs tentatively at all his lines, as if theyre expecting George Wendt to be funny no matter whats coming out of his mouth. That dies down a bit, and then as time goes on some of the lines that should get laughs dont. Wendt certainly has the presence for the role, but he is, yes, very understated, and hes sweating a little heat or nerves? Some of the lines dont sit well on him yet. Still, the audience is passing the heads-and-butts test theyre quiet, but theyre not restless and toward the end theres an audible gasp at a key revelation, a sure sign theyve been following the story. Wendt pulls off a terrific long pause just before the final rush of business that brings the play to its conclusion, theres strong applause and its over.
Theres a reason why Hollinger is so dogged about his beats and pauses: Hes a musician. He studied viola at Oberlin Conservatory and was all set to go to Carnegie Mellon on a graduate assistantship in viola when he decided he needed a year off.
A friend from Oberlin invited him to live in his parents carriage house in Merion, so he moved to the area and began working at Sam Goody. After a year, the lure of the viola had thoroughly waned "it was too lonely" and he decided to audition for Childrens Repertory Company. Soon thereafter he started writing short plays for them, realized he had found his calling, and entered Villanovas theater department as a graduate assistant in dramaturgy.
His parents worried a bit about his change of plans, but what did they expect? Michael had seen them on stage since he was a child. Ann and James Hollinger were the Lunt and Fontanne of York, PA, appearing together in countless community theater productions, sometimes with Michael in the cast. His mother also took paid acting gigs, performing regularly in, of all things, a traveling childrens theater troupe.
So the die had been cast.
Michael began his playwriting career in 7th grade. Inspired equally by Ionesco and a crush on a violinist, he wrote a play about a trapezoid salesman and sent the violinist scenes to impress her. But he never got up the courage to actually ask her for a date.
"My romantic life is the story of being overly subtle."
At Oberlin, his viola had often played second fiddle to his theater interests. And it was in college that he began a long friendship with fellow student Vance Lehmkuhl, later to become City Papers political cartoonist. The two of them played in a band, wrote musicals together and created a campus radio show called The Bananaheads Brothers Christmas Hour. "We would sit around and get completely stoned and just improvise into a tape recorder," Lehmkuhl says.
If that image is hard to reconcile with that of the clean-cut young playwright, Lehmkuhl points out that Hollinger was a paradoxical creature. "We would have band gigs where youd have to go unkempt, [in] very loose clothes, but at the same time you could always tell he was impeccably clean."
He was weird, yes Oberlin placed a high premium on weird, says Hollinger but he was "weird in a very buttoned-down way." As an example, Lehmkuhl tells about the prank Hollinger was most proud of. He and four friends carefully replaced the regulations posted in the conservatorys 200 piano practice rooms with copies that looked just like the official text but gradually devolved into mock confessions by the regulations authors, bemoaning their home lives and complaining about their jobs.
Terry Nolen says that when Hollinger told him about this prank, this subtle changing of the rules, he thought it sounded just like something a character in a Michael Hollinger play would do.
"Its not dissimilar from drinking vodka in a little spoon."
People feel good about the show, or say they do. Hollinger allows himself to wonder for a moment whether theres a part of the role Wendt might never get the sense of Victor as "a king among peasants." Then he adds, "But you do have a fine actor."
All in all, its been a decent performance, but it seems to have the same problem Empty Plate had at its first preview at the Arden. "The audience really responded at curtain call," says Terry Nolen, "but laughter throughout was very intermittent. I remember saying to the cast afterwards, Theyre really going with it, but its a funnier ride than what were giving them now."
Mary Harden, whose clients include Bruce Graham, is asked what its like bringing a new play to New York for the first time.
"Its terrifying," answers Harden, an engaging woman with a shock of red hair and a slightly anxious gleam in her eye. "Tonight is fun, I think [the play] is fabulous and funny, but opening night You never know. You never know "
For such a painstaking writer, Michael Hollinger has a reassuringly ramshackle office. Its on the third floor of his Mt. Airy home, a detached 1860s stucco at the top of a steep street of rowhouses, a cozy, amiable place with a white upright piano in the living room and, on a recent weekday, the smell of apple squash soup coming from the kitchen. He writes on a black Acer computer, just below a framed montage of famous playwrights he put together himself. Research books for current projects are jumbled up atop a sagging bookshelf; once a play is finished, the script and related books are relegated to one of several boxes. Red Herring is in a box already, but his Ovid and Kama Sutra are still on the shelf, awaiting a still-to-be-completed musical about sex ed in a private school.
There are family memories in the boxes, too. He pulls out a picture of his mother and father on their wedding day. They married the second time for both in a police station in Virginia, a scenario with echoes in Red Herring.
Incidents from his parents lives surface throughout his plays. ("We call ourselves Geezer Research," says his mother.) Ann proposed to James at a bullfight in Tijuana, and in Empty Plate a similar proposal is recalled. Ann is a recovering alcoholic; so is one of the two middle-aged sisters in Tiny Island.
Most days Hollinger makes breakfast, gets Megan and son Benjamin out the door to school, shuts the door and writes from 7:30-12:30. It doesnt come easy. He paces, he crouches, hell work for hours and come up with nothing. Megan will stay away from the house to give him space to think and return to find hes written only three lines.
"It makes me crazy," she says. " I just spent four hours at the Plymouth Meeting Mall so you can write three lines?"
But once he writes those lines, hell share them. "Megans very good at popping my bubble in a useful way." When she told him that an early ending of Red Herring was overly sentimental, he knew it needed to be changed because "shes sentimental. That [criticism], coming from her, is a big deal."
Megan and Michael "tag team it" to make room for each others theatrical careers. After a back-to-back procession of roles in 1999 and early 2000, she took a hiatus from acting for a while. "So she can be calm so I can be crazy," says Michael.
The couple met in a spring 1988 production of the musical Pippin at Villanova. Hollinger, a first-year grad student at the time, played the title role, "a guy who doesnt want to be ordinary, flitting from passion to passion." Bellwoar, a recent Allentown College grad, auditioned on a whim for the role of "average, ordinary" Catherine and wound up not only getting the part but falling "desperately in love" with her co-star. He had big hair, wore a big scarf and was so shy as to seem socially inept, but he became her grail. When department chair Joanna Rotté asked Bellwoar to apply for Villanovas graduate acting scholarship, she accepted mainly because "I didnt know what I was doing with my life and this really cute guy is here, so I might as well go."
Over the summer she taught herself French and juggling because those were interests of his. She joined the staff of Villanova Theatres newsletter because he was the editor. She tried to throw a surprise birthday party for him, but he couldnt attend. The entire department apparently knew of her obsession except for one person Hollinger. Until one snowy night, following a trip to the theater with him and a few friends, she made a tearful confession of her feelings.
The next day he called to say he wanted to pursue the relationship. Too late shed changed her mind.
This pushme-pullyou pattern continued for a good long while, but they were finally married in Dec. 1990 by Father Peter Donahue, the priest who directed Pippin.
Now, more than ten years later, they sit on their living room couch beneath a poster of Shakespeare in Love, playing with their sons toes.
"Its a valentine to our lives," says Hollinger of the movie. "Its about a playwright in love with an actress and writing roles for her."
Except for one thing. Hollinger says he wrote all the "M" roles in his plays for Megan. But, because of scheduling conflicts or casting decisions that didnt go her way, shes never yet gotten to play one of the roles in Philadelphia.
"I sort of think that its actually been for the best," says Bellwoar almost convincingly. But shes been peeved at times. When Incorruptible was being cast, she was working as Terry Nolens assistant and also setting up the auditions. Hollinger told her while they were driving somewhere that she wasnt going to be considered for the role of Marie. "That was the one," she remembers, "where I almost pulled off the road and killed him."
No fury like an actress scorned. But this is no Lady Macbeth. In fact, you get the distinct feeling that the hoopla surrounding her husband including the prospect of a NY commercial success makes her nervous.
"You can still be the person you were," she says. "It doesnt mean because people like your work your lifes going to change. I dont want it to change. Theres no need to become Elvis."
And ditto for Michael.
"The work is real," says Michael. "This article, the attention is a little unreal. Its always nice to get back in and fight the words."
photo: Michael LeGrand
For the second time in a week, someone uses the word "grim" in connection with the current state of affairs at Empty Plate. On the phone from Mt. Airy, Feb. 25, Megan says reports from Michael in NYC sound "a little grim." He has stayed in the city to see the Thursday and Friday previews, and on the second night Wendt pulled back even more. He didnt get the star applause on his entrance, either could that have had an adverse affect?
"Oh, my God," says Bellwoar. "Remember how I was worrying about how wed deal with success? Now I suddenly find myself wondering what happens if this is a flop, which never occurred to me before. Well just pray to St. Jude, I guess."
And whos that?
"The patron saint of lost causes."
All the contradictions of Michael Hollinger the prankster and the pragmatist, the risk-taker and the collaborator, the boy and the man coalesce in fatherhood.
"The joy he brings to being a father opens ones heart," says Joanna Rotté of the Villanova theater department. He made frequent visits to the office to show off Benjamin when he was first born, Rotté remembers, and he held him in a way that seemed to say, "This is a great being."
In fact, Benjamin is a pretty great being, a loquacious little blonde-headed boy with an impish sense of humor. Hes a cuddly kid, happy to nestle between his parents or crawl up inside the back of his fathers sweater, but also apt to tear around the house at high speed talking all the while. Michael and Megan are clearly delighted with him, and he with them.
A passerby recently observed a scene in Mt. Airy which seemed to sum up the Hollinger father/ son relationship. Michael and Benjamin were walking hand in hand down the street in deep conversation. Nothing unusual about that except both were wearing striped derbies and clown noses.
"I have a pretty intense inner child," explains Michael. "For me, having a little kid is total license to be as silly as little kids are " Theyd seen the costumes in a store window and simply put them on. No special occasion. Just plain fun.
"The revolution about being a dad was getting quality time back. We eat lunch at our desks, use email and voicemail. The thing about a kid is it takes him a certain amount of time to pee, to eat, to get to sleep. You force that rhythm at your peril."
Feb. 27, and beyond
As a playwright and a father, Michael Hollinger is finding the rhythms that work for him.
In a very real sense, thats also the task facing John Rando, George Wendt and the cast of Empty Plate.
On Sunday, Rando calls Hollinger in Chicago, where hes awaiting the premiere of Tiny Island. The news from New York is the best of the week. The two Saturday performances were much improved over the first three previews, says Rando.. If Wendt and the cast can continue to make progress over the next week, upping the ante by 5 percent each night, the show will be ready to go on Mar. 8.
Whatever happens, Hollinger will be there. And though it goes against the grain somewhat ("Hes cheap," says his wife), hes made an extravagant purchase: a black Calvin Klein suit and all the accouterments of a young playwright on the cusp.
His mother will be there, too, of course: "Im trying to compete with Neils mother. I understand she even did box office for him. Move over, Mrs. Simon!" And the rest of his family, too.
"Its all very exciting," says Hollinger. "I wish it would stop."
Red Herring, Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St., through Mar. 19. Tickets available for most performances except Saturday nights, 215-922-8900.
An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf, Primary Stages, 354 W. 45th St., New York City, through Mar. 25, 212-333-4052.