For Arden pair, it's once again two for the show

A revival of Michael Hollinger's 1996 play "Incorruptible" again teams the playwright and director Terrence J. Nolen.
A revival of Michael Hollinger's 1996 play "Incorruptible" again teams the playwright and director Terrence J. Nolen. (MARK GARVIN)
Posted: May 23, 2014

Even a casual local theatergoer knows that Michael Hollinger and Terrence J. Nolen are the Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese of the Philadelphia stage. Since making his debut as a playwright at the Arden Theatre in 1994 with the darkly humorous, philosophically wrenching An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf, Hollinger has returned to artistic director Nolen's storytelling fold repeatedly, premiering such thought-provoking dark comedies as Tiny Island (1997), Red Herring (2000), and the poignant, music-themed Opus, 2006).

Then there's Incorruptible - Hollinger's first full-length play - which opened at the Arden in 1996 and is back again this week, a precursor of the team's next collaboration, the world premiere of the eerily humorous Under the Skin, in 2015.

"We've done seven world premieres, two revivals - including Incorruptible - and a second Cyrano production (he translated and co-adapted), so technically Under the Skin is our eleventh [collaboration]," said Hollinger, as if making notches in his belt.

Incorruptible is the pair's first director-writer teaming since Opus. "It's nice, looking across the table read and seeing my old friend," Nolen said.

Where Opus was mystical, and Empty Plate magical, Incorruptible is macabre, a comic tale of moral and ethical ambiguity that mixes Monty Python and the Holy Grail with The Name of the Rose.

"That's about right," said Nolen before throwing Game of Thrones in the mix (with Hollinger adding Young Frankenstein) to describe their medieval, silly look at whether it's right to do wrong.

"I wanted to balance real gravity, actual pain, and glimpses of humanity amid the hijinks," Hollinger said. "The contrast interests me - the collision of the sweet and the piquant."

How they got to Incorruptible - written before Empty Plate was drafted - stems from each man's relationship with actress Megan Bellwoar, Hollinger's wife, who was Nolen's assistant in 1993.

"Megan mentioned that her husband was a playwright and asked me if I would I read something," the director said. "I don't remember what I expected."

What he got was "absolute love at first sight" - Empty Plate. "The next day, I asked Megan 'Where's Michael?' and within a year, we mounted his play."

What intrigued Nolen then is what engrosses him now. "Michael did something unique that connected with the audience in a personal way and managed to be bleakly comic," Nolen said of Empty Plate's premise. "A man walks into a café announcing he's starving himself to death."

Nolen said Hollinger had great compassion for characters whose tales were filled with ethical disputes, as well as a lilting sense of language, rhythm, and silence stemming from his training as a musician.

For his part, Hollinger was immediately struck by Nolen's efficiency, lucidity, and total command. "When the Apocalypse happens, I want Terry to tech it," he said.

As its first original production, Empty Plate was a game-changer for the Arden, setting in motion its "great stories" ideal, as well as starting a relationship the director likens to a romance.

As for Hollinger, "I had no idea that that play would be the start of anything long-term - now 20 years and counting - that's impacted everything since."

If Empty Plate was artistic love at first sight, then Incorruptible, the story of a down-on-its-luck monastery infiltrated by a carnal, wisecracking minstrel and finding its salvation (monetarily, at least), was the marriage of visions.

"What I remember about the original Incorruptible was that we couldn't get the audience to laugh in the first act, and that my only direction in the second act was to tell actors to just talk louder, as you couldn't stop the loud laughs," Nolen said.

He says the Arden's Playwright Residency Program (through which Hollinger worked) is the reason they're tackling Incorruptible now. "We thought back to his first play 20 years ago and believed that would be worthwhile."

This time, directed by Matt Decker (who was "in high school when we did the first one," moans Nolen), the play benefits from new tech, line changes, and an audience used to the playwright's idiosyncratic rhythms and complex black humor. Certainly that's the formula of their next collaboration, Under the Skin, a story about owing life to those who gave us life, a father in need of a kidney, and a family that might not be so forthcoming - "in a comedy," noted Nolen (with Hollinger adding a laugh and an "ouch.").

"I was amazed at how family dynamics play out in issues of organ donation - the best and worst of human nature comes out," the playwright said. Perfect fare for him, and sufficient to have Nolen nearly swooning on first reading it.

"We've grown together, and made a commitment that we would recommit with each new play," Nolen said. "Doing Incorruptible and Under the Skin is just like falling in love all over again."


THEATER

Incorruptible

Through June 22 at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St.

Tickets: $15-$48. Information: 215-922-1122 or www.ardentheatre.org

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