BWW Review: John Kolvenbach's HALF 'N HALF 'N HALF World Premiere at MRT
Half 'n Half 'n Half
Written by John Kolvenbach, Directed by Kyle Fabel; Scenic Designer, Randall Parsons; Costume Designer, Lara de Brujin; Lighting Designer, Paul Hackenmuller; Sound Designer/Composer, J Hagenbuckle; Production Stage Manager, Emily McMullen; Assistant Stage Manager, Peter Crewe
Performances through December 23 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4MRT (4678) or www.MRT.org
For theatergoers and movie fans alike, peeking behind the curtain holds a fascination that is undeniable. Consider the unmasking of the Phantom of the Opera, or the reveal of the ordinary man pulling levers behind the great and powerful Wizard of Oz. There's an extensive list of musicals, plays, and films about the backstage world, including A Chorus Line, All About Eve, A Star is Born, and Kiss Me, Kate. Merrimack Repertory Theatre presents the world premiere of Half 'n Half 'n Half, John Kolvenbach's comedy that takes a behind-the-scenes look at life in a repertory theatre company. Director Kyle Fabel collaborates with the playwright for the fourth time, returning to MRT to guide a cast of four actors making their local debuts.
Jim Ortlieb (George), Carol Halstead (Loretta), Zoë Winters (Frances), and Andrew Pastides (Michael) play the four actors on tour. Each plays a role in the two period pieces they are performing, showcasing their versatility as they seamlessly alternate characters, accents, and costumes. Fabel and the design team do a good job of differentiating the areas of the MRT stage that are part of the faux play, versus the wings and dressing rooms where the "real life" scenes of the play occur. The center of the set, designed by Randall Parsons, is a utilitarian parlor, flanked by small rooms that are initially concealed by black curtains before they come into use. Lighting Designer Paul Hackenmuller shifts our attention when the action moves from the brightly lit center stage to the offstage side rooms, featuring warmer and softer light from small lamps.
The conceit of showing the actors at work in two plays running in repertory is clever, especially as the romantic difficulties of their characters onstage parallel their own in "real life," but Kolvenbach more or less writes himself (and George and Loretta) into a corner. The simple plot is that after thirty years of marriage, the end of the run of their current show signals the implementation of their fifteen-year plan to divorce. While George seems to have cooled on the idea, it is unclear where Loretta stands and the only question left for the playwright to explore is "will they or won't they?"
George does all of his thinking out loud in the presence of Frances, their adult daughter and fellow company member, who is not only more mature than her father, but smarter in affairs of the heart. Loretta has the ear of the fourth company member, young Michael, who is also somewhat smitten with the older woman. Michael's ardor comes out of nowhere and doesn't ring true, other than as a convenient plot device to compel George to take action. Cue predictable jealous reaction of husband. For her part, Loretta barely notices the attention, which seems odd.
When the backstage shenanigans of the protagonist spill through the dressing room door into a scene playing live onstage, all hell breaks loose and the comedy that Kolvenbach has been trying to get off the ground finally takes wing. For most of the first act, the two theatrical plays-within-the-play offer more character development, more conflict, more drama, and more comedy than the actual play that contains them. My interest in what would happen to the characters of the Russian melodrama and the British drawing room comedy outweighed my curiosity about the possible resolutions for the bickering, soon-to-be divorced thespian couple.
All of that changes in the second act when George and Loretta verbally duke it out in front of their audience, spouting impromptu lines that sort of fit the circumstances of the scene, but actually derive from their intense, confused feelings about each other. Although she more or less goaded her father into battle, Frances does what she can to minimize the damage, while Michael tries to dodge the oncoming train wreck.
The cast is a cohesive ensemble, timing their many entrances and exits perfectly, maintaining straight faces throughout the farcical goings on, and earnestly trying to keep things afloat in the laden first act. They are visibly buoyed when the pace picks up after intermission, and their re- focused energy lets us experience George, Loretta, Frances, and Michael as more fully realized characters in their own right. Thanks to the talent and experience of Ortlieb and Halstead, we can see vestiges of what brought George and Loretta together in the first place, but Kolvenbach needs to build a better foundation for the course he charts for Frances and Michael. Winters and Pastides shared the stage in the Off-Broadway production of Love Song at 59E59, so they are familiar with Kolvenbach's rhythm and with each other, but their characters are underwritten.
Half 'n Half 'n Half is the third Kolvenbach play that I have seen produced at MRT, following Fabuloso in 2010 and Mrs. Whitney last season (I saw Orfeo Group's Love Song in 2011), and I am a fan of his work. He always comes up with an unusual spin for a routine situation and poses thoughtful questions about relationships that lead his characters and the audience on journeys with unexpected outcomes. This time around, it's a pleasant ride on a well-traveled road, but we already know where it leads.