by Samuel L. Leiter
Living on Love, the old-fashioned screwball farce in which opera star Renée Fleming is making her delightful Broadway debut, may have the musty fragrance of a pre-owned vehicle, but with Fleming at the wheel it manages, despite hitting a few potholes, to arrive at its destination before the transmission expires. Playwright Joe DiPietro has given it a new paint job, added some up-to-date accessories, and even retrofitted its 1980s chassis to resemble a 1950s model.
The play, which debuted last year at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, is an adaptation of Peccadillo, a 1985 flop by the late Garson Kanin, which, despite a cast including Christopher Plummer, Glynis Johns, and Kelly McGillis, died aborning in Fort Lauderdale. The plot remains more or less the same, although the time has been moved to 1957, with mostly new dialogue and references, such as changing the leading man’s jealousy of Zubin Mehta to Leonard Bernstein.
That lead is Vito De Angelis (Douglas Sills), a famous, dashing, white-haired, chain-smoking, egomaniacal, skirt-chasing conductor of a certain age. Vito’s glamorous, Pomeranian-carrying wife, Raquel De Angelis (Fleming), is a renowned opera star, also of a certain age and, like Vito, unwilling to admit it. He’s Il Maestro, and she’s La Diva. (In Peccadillo, Raquel has retired, so singing isn’t needed; in Living on Love, big pipes are essential, thus Ms. Fleming’s presence.)
Vito, who has the kind of flamboyant Italian accent you hear only on stage, has hired the good-looking young writer Robert Samson (Jerry O’Connell) to ghostwrite his tell-all autobiography, for which he’s received a $50,000 advance from Little, Brown. (In Vito’s broken English, Robert is his “spooky helper.” Mama mia!) Vito thinks his book, moving at snail’s pace because of his uncooperativeness, should exploit his sexual conquests, but the idealistic Jerry, a struggling writer, disagrees; one of the play’s flat tires is the title of Jerry’s unpublished opus, The Great American Novel. Nonetheless, he becomes the seventh ghostwriter Vito fires. This brings Iris Peabody (Anna Chlumsky), a cute, low-ranking editor, to the maestro’s penthouse to demand the advance’s return; no one else has the guts to confront him. Iris (which Vito insists on pronouncing “Irish”—again, Mama mia!) is angling for a promotion.
La Diva, a spendthrift who has blown the advance, returns from a failed European tour, reducing her to having to play “the provinces,” such as Fort Lauderdale (take that!). She decides to cash in on her own life story by hiring Jerry to ghostwrite it. Vito’s attempted seduction of Iris (to the strains of “Bolero”) is matched by Raquel’s of Jerry (for which she dresses as Mimi in La Bohéme).
Eventually, all these complications are ironed out, supplemented by an amusing romantic resolution involving Vito and Raquel’s plump, aging Tweedledee and Tweedledum-like servants, the perfectly cast Eric (Scott Robertson) and Bruce (Blake Hammond). During the scene shifts these gents rearrange the furniture with choreographic precision, singing lively operatic passages and even breaking into “Making Whoopie.”
Finally, since we’ve heard several times of how a boy violinist kept playing “Always” when Vito first met Raquel in Vienna, a cascade of sentimentality brings the curtain down as snowflakes fall (snow globes play an important part in their relationship) and Il Maestro and La Diva embrace while singing (beautifully) Berlin’s affectionate ballad.