LOWELL — Playwright John Kolvenbach has staked his claim on quirky. His dark comedies follow the wacky adventures of individuals out of synch with the rhythms of society, either by choice or circumstance, particularly in matters of love. In his newest farce, “Half ’n Half ’n Half,” now getting a world premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, he sets the action in a theater, with scenes that take place both onstage and in the dressing rooms.
The most hilarious moments in the play come when the actors shift from their offstage characters into their onstage characters, but “Half ’n Half ’n Half” always feels like a disjointed collection of funny fragments rather than a coherent comedy.
The plot, such as it is, follows a long-married couple, actors who decided 15 years ago to get a divorce but haven’t had the money to go through with it until now. The current starring vehicle for George (Jim Ortlieb) and Loretta (Carol Halstead) is a pair of repertory pieces: a Chekhovian family drama and a British drawing room farce. The shows are making money, so they have agreed to sign the divorce papers at the end of the run. Now that the deadline is looming, George is having second thoughts, exacerbated by the moves Michael (Andrew Pastides), a younger company member, is making on Loretta. Prompted by his grown daughter Frances (Zoë Winters) to show his wife how he feels, George ad-libs a new ending for scenes in both plays.
The classics of backstage comedy — “Noises Off,” by Michael Frayn, and “Kiss Me, Kate,” by Cole Porter and Sam and Bella Spewack — set a high standard, and Kolvenbach’s script makes a valiant effort to spin the action at the required speed. But the only character we get to know is George, and since this is about a relationship, skipping over Loretta’s point of view misses the opportunity for dramatic tension. Although both George and Frances speak of Loretta’s object-tossing temper, Kolvenbach allows her to glide through scenes with nary a raised hand, let alone a clenched fist.
Fortunately, Kolvenbach is tended by a director and a quartet of actors who clearly adore these characters and know how to make them hum. This is the third Kolvenbach play Kyle Fabel has directed, and both Pastides and Winters are Kolvenbach veterans, comfortable with the roller coaster rhythm of his scripts. Pastides, in particular, makes Michael a charming rogue, an ambitious young actor with just the right touch of nonchalance, while Ortlieb’s George is a lovable buffoon.
Set designer Randall Parsons has created a little jewel-box set, with the onstage action taking place center stage, and a dressing room on each side. It’s a cozy, comfortable frame that allows some outrageously funny costume designs by Lara De Brujin, and some relatively quiet offstage moments in the midst of the onstage shenanigans.
But in the final scene, when George entreats Loretta with the comment, “You and me is who we are,” the play hasn’t earned their reunion. “Half ’n Half ’n Half” never becomes a whole.Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@