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Musicians on the verge of a nervous breakdown

Violist-turned-playwright Michael Hollinger explores the backstage drama, passions in a high-strung quartet

By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / March 28, 2010

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PHILADELPHIA — When Michael Hollinger graduated from Oberlin Conservatory at the age of 22, he was poised for a life as a professional violist. But as he began ruminating on the isolation of endless hours practicing, the physical aches of constant playing, and the daunting career prospects, Hollinger chose to make a radical shift in his life trajectory, shedding his viola bow for the playwright’s pen.

Hollinger, who earned a master’s degree in theater from Villanova University, where he’s now an associate professor, had always considered penning a drama set in the world of classical music. But it wasn’t until nearly 20 years later, when he began playing the viola again in an informal chamber music ensemble near his home in suburban Philadelphia, that a story began to take shape in his mind.

The result is the five-character “Opus,’’ staged by the New Repertory Theatre beginning today. It centers on the backstage drama and inflamed passions that threaten to implode a renowned string quartet as it prepares for a nationally televised performance at the White House.

“Opus’’ premiered at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia in 2006 and debuted off-Broadway at Primary Stages in 2007 to ecstatic reviews. It captured an American Theatre Critics Association/Steinberg New Play Citation, among other awards, and has become one of the most produced new plays at major American theaters this season.

“This play has become a calling card for my work to some degree,’’ says Hollinger, seated at an umbrella-ed table in the soaring, marble-floored entry hall at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. “Although my plays have been done nationally for some time, it does feel like a breakthrough in terms of becoming acquainted with some major American theaters, who are now doing my work for the first time.’’

A play about a classical music string quartet wouldn’t exactly seem to get pulses racing. But it proves to be both dynamic and thrilling. Indeed, Hollinger has fashioned a career out of exploring strange, often esoteric universes and in the process opening a window into the human experience.

While “Opus’’ focuses on a world that Hollinger knew well, his previous plays have sprung from more unfamiliar territory, often set in faraway lands or time periods. His 2004 play “Tooth and Claw,’’ which Zeitgeist Stage Company presented in 2005, grappled with a Darwinian struggle for survival in the Galapagos Islands between local fishermen and endangered tortoises. “Incorruptible,’’ which premiered in 1996, focuses on a group of grave-robbing monks in a French monastery during the Middle Ages. The screwball murder-mystery “Red Herring’’ (2000) is about espionage during the 1950s McCarthy era.

“I become intrigued by an alien situation in which there’s an essential conflict that I can’t easily unravel, where forces are colliding with each other,’’ he says. “I find that collision more interesting than who’s right on either side. And usually by entering the world and digging around for a while, I discover why I’m writing it, I discover the personal reason behind it.’’

With “Opus,’’ Hollinger began thinking about the ephemeral nature of art and life. “Even though the subject material was fairly close to me,’’ he says, “it took me a while to figure out why I wanted to write this play.’’

The story Hollinger dreamt up revolves around the fictional Lazara String Quartet as it prepares for a big performance before the president. The problem is that the head-case violinist, Dorian, goes AWOL six days before the televised gig. This forces the heretofore all-male group to replace him with a young woman whose considerable gifts inspire them to prepare an ambitious piece for the concert, Beethoven’s famed “Opus 131.’’ In this pressure-cooker environment, personalities clash, tempers flare, and the group must confront some difficult truths.

“Beethoven’s ‘Opus 131’ has been around for a couple of centuries,’’ Hollinger observes. “The instruments they play are centuries old. These things have an endurance that their own lives and their own work and our lives do not have.’’

In person, the bespectacled Hollinger is still-boyish at 48, with tousled salt-and-pepper hair and an easy laugh.

When Hollinger began thinking about “Opus,’’ he says he wanted the characters to echo the qualities of their particular instruments.

“I wouldn’t want the play to be too self-conscious in terms of its formal devices because then it’s about, ‘Oh, look how clever I am.’ ’’ he says. “My hope is that people become engaged in the organic moment-to-moment unfolding of the play. But for those who look deeper, I think it’s satisfying in its form and the way it has a musicality. Obviously if it’s a play that’s just about crescendos and diminuendos, then I’ve missed the boat. But if the play is about the collision of people in the pursuit of something, then I think that’s universal.’’

Jim Petosa, who’s directing the New Rep production, is impressed by Hollinger’s ability to capture how art reflects humanity.

“The quartet, while comprised of four individuals, only attains its goal when those four souls unite and become one mysterious entity thinking with one mind and one heart. And that’s a very elusive moment,’’ Petosa says. “It’s a powerful journey about trying to create a perfection in art that transcends them all.’’

Hollinger has always been fascinated by the creative process. Although he pursued music in college, theater and writing were strong interests. His parents acted at a local community theater in York, Pa., and he remembers acting in plays, helping build sets, and holding scripts while his parents learned their lines. In college, although he was a music major, he wrote comedy sketches, performed improv, and wrote and directed a musical. He even made his living as an actor for about a year-and-a-half before heading to graduate school.

“Music and theater were always battling each other for favor,’’ he says. “When I was a kid, I used to watch ‘The Waltons,’ and I loved the idea that John-Boy Walton was a writer. I thought that seemed like a really glamorous thing to do. So I think I aspired to be a writer for a long time.’’

He wrote the central role in his new play, “Ghost-Writer,’’ for his wife, Megan Bellwoar, a Philadelphia actress (the couple have two children, ages 13 and 5). Inspired by an anecdote about Henry James’s secretary, who reportedly claimed to still receive dictation from him after his death, the play will debut next season at the Arden, where Hollinger has found a nurturing home and where all of his full-length pieces have premiered.

With “Opus,’’ Hollinger believes his writing has undergone a major shift — in the play’s present-tense setting and the creation of a world he knows well, but also in its austerity.

“As I get older,’’ he says, “I probably look more doggedly at what’s really worth saying in each play beyond the attractions of a particular time or place or situation. When I was younger, I may have tap danced more in a play to try to maintain interest.’’

OPUS Presented by New Repertory Theatre March 28-April 17 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown. Tickets: $35-54. 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org