You may want to buckle up for the elevator ride to random floors that opens the new play "Hope and Gravity." You're in for a quite a few ups and downs before the big picture comes into focus.
"I do like a good puzzle," admits Michael Hollinger.
City Theatre is mounting the world premiere of the playwright's latest work, continuing a collaboration that includes debuts of his plays "Opus" and "Incorruptible" with Arden Theatre of Philadelphia and a production of "Red Herring."
Months of development have included readings in New York and City's Momentum Festival in the four years since Mr. Hollinger began forming the links in the plot chain. The show was still in flux while in previews at the South Side company when the associate professor and artistic director at Villanova University spoke about the ups and downs of a new play's progress.
"Previews are a time of intense curiosity. At this point, it's only a blueprint and the only laboratory you have is this production," he says. He adds that he had just three hours earlier passed along changes to director Tracy Brigden.
"I find I don't really know what a play is until I've seen a half-dozen productions of it, and fortunately I've had that opportunity most of the time. It's really a process of, 'Who are you, play?' " he says, laughing. "As I tell my students, a play is really a hypothesis waiting to be proven."
There's a hopefulness in bringing a new play into the world, not unlike the "Hope" of the title. The play began life as "Ups and Downs," one of the many changes Mr. Hollinger has made to his blueprint along the way. One thing that hasn't changed is the intention to build a whole from seemingly disconnected scenes.
"I had a number of short pieces, 10-minute plays, and they have a limited life," Mr. Hollinger explains. "Maybe they get anthologized or are part of an evening of work, but I started wondering if they could be connected if I created characters that connected them and if I created a larger storyline."
For instance, a scene may involve a newly engaged couple or students and their professor, but within each part there is a link to the bigger picture, "like building a jigsaw puzzle," says Ms. Brigden.
The director was attracted to the humor and the hopefulness she saw in the play, which has some dark moments but also has "a sort of spring and renewal theme running through it," perfect for the finale of City Theatre's 39th season.
Among the challenges facing the director and scenic designer Anne Mundell are the different venues dictated by the script.
"We wanted to find a unifying element, and the first and last scenes of the play are the elevator, so the elevator became the leitmotif in a way," she says.
The playwright sees "Hope and Gravity" as a progression after "Opus" and the play that followed, "Ghost-Writer," which used flashbacks and "a jumbling of time," as he calls it, to disseminate information.
"It's certainly the most extreme use I've ever done. Fortunately in my experience of readings, audiences seem to be very excited by the responsibility given to them to assemble the play."
"He's written it so that every scene stands on its own as a play, but the bigger joy is when you put them all together," Ms. Brigden says.
While "Hope and Gravity" was entering previews last week, Mr. Hollinger's "Incorruptible" -- a co-production with City in 1996 -- was being revived at his home theater in Philadelphia, the Arden.
His "degree of utter relaxation" comes from years of seeing the earlier play performed all over the world.
"I know it works; the verdict is in on that," he says. "The metaphor I've used is, I feel like a parent of 'Hope and Gravity' -- anxious and wondering if the kid's going to be all right -- while I'm the grandparent with "Incorruptible': 'You're going to be fine. Send pictures ...' and not concerned in that way.
Ms. Brigden was talking about "Hope and Gravity" soon after hearing that "Outside Mullingar" -- a play on City's 40th-season schedule -- had captured a Tony nomination for best play.
"I'm thrilled that 'Outside Mullingar' is Tony-nominated and might even be a Tony winner when it is onstage for us in the fall, but I'm really more proud of us when we tackle a world premiere like 'Hope and Gravity,' " she says. "It's the bigger challenge, and I think it's more exciting for the audience to see a play that has never existed before."
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. Twitter: SEberson_pg.