Off-stage, on-stage, ‘Half ‘n Half ‘n Half’ is a hoot

LOWELL — Theater people can be funny. On occasion, very funny.

The classic musical “Kiss Me, Kate,” is the obvious example. The farce “Noises Off” and Ken Ludwig‘s comedy “Moon Over Buffalo” are others.

There is fertile ground for a playwright in the acting profession, with its peripatetic lifestyle and an occupation full of insecurity and rejection.

It all can have a disastrous effect on an actor’s relationships — especially with other actors — and can even spill over into his or her professional life.  And that’s exactly what happens at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in the world premiere of John Kolvenbach’s backstage comedy “Half ‘n Half ‘n Half.”

From the left, Carol Halstead, Zoe Winters, Andrew Pastides (lying) and Jim Ortlieb in 'Half ,n Half .n Half." Photo: Megan Moore

From the left, Carol Halstead, Zoe Winters, Andrew Pastides (lying) and Jim Ortlieb in ‘Half ,n Half .n Half.” Photo: Megan Moore

It’s an often hilarious view of the chaos that can ensure when an unhappily-married couple let their private lives spill onto a public stage. It also had its poignant moments in its look at relationships

Acting couple Loretta (Carol Halstead) and George (Jim Ortlieb) have been threatening to divorce for years, but never quite got around to it — kind of a money issue. Although they are no longer living as a couple after a 30-year relationship, they are still performing and touring together with their actress daughter Frances (Zoe Winters), who has long since tired of their seemingly endless arguments.

The three are on tour with Michael (Andrew Pastides) a talented, handsome young actor, performing both a Russian melodrama and a 1930’s Boulevard comedy.

We see them both onstage and off and we see trouble brewing early as George explains his relationship with Loretta to Michael. George is stunned when, after he reveals his plans to divorce Loretta, Michael asks if that means “she’s available.”

Suspicious, he later pops into a dressing room to find his wife and Michael locked in a passionate kiss.

An enraged George decides it’s the perfect time to get his revenge and to start “free-lancing” on stage. and to the horror of both his wife and Michael, he performs an unscripted entrance in the middle of a scene in the Russian play and an equally-unscripted shooting of Michael’s character.

Chaos reigns with prop guns, stage slaps and Michael’s character dying and being revived several times and Loretta’s character delivering the line “And so my son has left and gone and I’m the cause” as the son lies dead in front of her.

Later, they again forego the script and start hurling gleeful improvised insults at each other. And you’ll howl at the scene with the large crawling arachnid.

Kolvenback and Director Kyle Fabel ask a lot of their talented cast, slipping into and out of multiple roles, split-second timing for entrances and exits and quick changes, but all four are up to the challenge. Pastides is especially good handling a variety of accents and disparate roles.

Scenic designer Randall Parsons’ set is well-thought-out and executed, with a theater stage in the center and adjacent dressing rooms on both sides of the stage that allow action to be staged in more than one area simultaneously.

At one points George and Loretta are having parallel conversations on opposite sides of the stage about the time the lights went out on stage in the middle of a production, and how the event brought them together as a couple.

The rest of the story is for you to enjoy, but there is a line spoken by George to Loretta that is key.

“You and me is what we are,” he says. “You and me are what I am.”

“Half ’n Half ’n Half” is Kolvenbach’s third collaboration with MRT, with all three directed by Fabel, and it’s a winning combination. Take a break from the holiday madness, sit back and laugh.

Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s world premiere production of “Half ’n Half ’n Half.” Written by John Kolvenbach. Directed by Kyle Favel. Through Dec. 23 at the Nancy Donahue Theatre, Lowell.