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City Theatre's 'Hope and Gravity' offers plenty of ups, downs

| Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Hope, gravity and a seemingly unrelated elevator accident tie together the lives of nine characters in Michael Hollinger's new play, “Hope and Gravity,” which is being performed at City Theatre.

Hollinger will be familiar to theater regulars for his earlier play, “Red Herring,” as well as “Opus” and “Incorruptible,” which both had their world premieres at City Theatre in co-productions with Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia.

He's a prolific playwright who has had productions at regional theaters such as Actors Theatre of Louisville and Seattle Rep and in New York City at Primary Stages as well as abroad, in London, Paris, Tokyo, Athens, Poland and Slovenia.

His many plays left him with an assortment of short pieces that he had written but not yet fully developed. He decided to recycle them by interweaving the scenes and their characters into a new, full-length play, originally called “Ups and Downs.”

“I had about five, for starters,” Hollinger says. By the time the play had its first reading, there were seven scenes. As the script progressed through a series of readings, he eliminated scenes and added others until he arrived at the nine scenes City Theatre audiences will see.

“Only one of the originals is left,” he says.

From an impromptu house call to an unlikely hotel hookup, chance encounters and rocky relationships unfold through nine stories and one momentous leap of faith.

Some scenes are wildly funny while others are poignant or sad.

“It's my favorite field. I call it ‘ha-ha-ouch' — you laugh, and then you hurt,” he says. “I like the dynamic of push and pull. When the audience laughs, it becomes less guarded. You get them laughing, then create something poignant.”

Originally, he had thought to use an elevator that traveled between different floors of a building to reveal a different story at each stop.

Now the elevator is present only in one scene but offers the theme that ties together events happening in locales in and near an American city.

It's further complicated by having the nine characters played by only five performers, which creates amusing juxtapositions such as a woman playing herself and her rival for the same man's affections.

“When the curtain call takes place, (the audience) should be surprised that there are only five actors,” Hollinger says.

He also decided to tell his story in a nonlinear fashion, moving the action backward and forward in time and allowing the audience to piece together the sequence.

He offers clues to that by naming the first scene “Out of Order” and appending numbers that suggest there is an alternate progression to the way they are performed.

“There is a delight in the viewer making connections that the characters never make. (The characters) don't know all the facts, but we do,” Hollinger says.

Each scene operates on dual levels, he says. “It needs to deliver the impact of a 10-minute play but contribute to … the overall narrative.” Ultimately, he discovered, “The audience had a more powerful connection to the whole than any individual piece.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com. or via Twitter @ATCarter_Trib

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