The New York Times gave Michael Hollinger’s most recent play, “Opus,” the kind of review that could go to his head. They called it “an absorbing new play” that “generates plenty of subtle heat." Kate Warner, artistic director of the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, agrees.

Michael Hollinger calls it his “eureka!” moment. It hit him so profoundly that he wrote his sudden realization in his journal. And then he underlined it. And added exclamation points:


I am a writer!!!


The editors at the New York Times might modify that statement. Their re-write might look something like this: He’s a very talented writer.


The Times gave Hollinger’s most recent play, “Opus,” the kind of review that could go to his head. They called it “an absorbing new play” that “generates plenty of subtle heat,” adding that it’s “marked by a nuanced intelligence in its depiction of the complex relationship between musicians’ lives and their art.”


Kate Warner, artistic director of the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, agrees. She chose “Opus” as part of her inaugural season at New Rep, where it plays Sunday through April 17.


Carnegie Mellon University would have been surprised to read that entry in Hollinger’s journal. Officials there were so impressed with his gifts as a violist that, a couple years earlier, they had offered him a scholarship to study viola performance. Clearly, they thought, “He’s a musician!”


But Hollinger was so burned out on practice and performing that he asked if his scholarship could be deferred for a year.


“A few months later, I bailed on it entirely,” says Hollinger, speaking on the phone from Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife and two children. “I just felt I would be happier doing stupid jobs.”


Hollinger drifted back to his youth – he had been surrounded by theater as a kid – and spent about a year and a half acting professionally. The performing led to writing for the stage. His “eureka!” moment followed soon after.


Hollinger, 48, has sent about a half-dozen plays out into the world, including “Red Herring” and “An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf.” But none of them marries his new passion for playwrighting with his old one for the viola like “Opus.” The play follows an acclaimed quartet on the cusp of a career-defining concert at the White House – “the Hail-Mary pass of their career,” says Hollinger. But they’ve fired one of their members, and now, the three remaining middle-aged men are about to fill the vacancy with a talented 25-year-old female who, inevitably, shifts the dynamics within in a quartet. It’s a shaky time – not good for a profession built on precision.


“Opus” is a straight-ahead drama, but you’ll probably laugh.


“Some people are surprised there’s so much humor in my plays,” says Hollinger. “But I feel, as an audience member, you better make me laugh before I’m going to cry. An audience needs to be softened up.”


Sounds like he softened up the Times critic. But Hollinger is quite level-headed in his response to praise. His sober reaction is probably a character trait – not once during our 30-minute phone conversation does he offer any kind of idle boast.


And his thoughts on the frame-worthy “Times” review?


“My response to that review is the same response that I have to other good reviews: I feel like I dodged a bullet,” he says. “It’s not so much that something good happened; I see it more as something bad didn’t happen.”


And then, perhaps recognizing the negativism of that statement, he laughs.


You get more of the same if you ask him about his most exciting moment as a playwright. You may expect him to talk about opening night of “Opus” in Manhattan, the chance to meet a favorite playwright, or his Barrymore Award for Outstanding New Play. But instead he talks about the various steps in the process of making a play.


“There’s a buzz when the characters you’re creating actually start to talk with each other, and there’s excitement at hearing [your new play] for the first time at a reading,” he says, adding that he also loves “the reactions of an audience when the play is really working – if they gasp at a plot turn, laugh at a comic moment, or mutter when they have a sense of dread.”


He’s been thinking about the audience a lot recently – a unique relationship that has a mysterious life beyond his control. Hollinger recently had a production of “Opus” open in Denver on the same night that a production of his “Red Herring” opened in Paris, in French.


“I feel like I’m connecting with people I don’t even know,” he says. “That’s really cool. I hope I never take that for granted.”


OPUS Written by Michael Hollinger; directed by Jim Petosa. Performed by the New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown, March 28-April 17. 617- 923-8487. $35-$54.


The Patriot Ledger