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but the idealistic Jerry, a struggling writer, disagrees; one of the play’s flat tires is the title of Jerry’s unpublished opus, The Great American Novel.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.
Silly, corny, and schmaltzy as all this sounds, it manages, under Kathleen Marshall’s brisk, if overstated, direction, to cruise smoothly along, largely because of its enthusiastic performances. (An example of overkill is having Iris, who says she knows Japanese, growl a sentence like an angry samurai; what Japanese-speakers will hear, though, is something like “It’s been pretty cold; how about we get together?”)
Chlumsky and O’Connell sometimes work too hard at making their mundane cartoon characters laugh-worthy, but Sills, whose character demands a larger-than-life interpretation, plays the conceited maestro to perfection. Fleming, the main attraction, is a past mistress at self-deprecating comic charm, being both colorfully ostentatious and perfectly believable; she sings only snatches of opera (and all of “Always”), but each note is divine. Give this woman a Broadway musical!
Michael Krass’s vibrant costumes make the most of their opportunities (although Robert is dressed too well for a starving writer); Fleming’s ensembles are eye-catching, but Bruce and Eric’s multiple servant uniforms are stealthy scene stealers. Derek McLane’s ornately detailed penthouse, brightly lit by Peter Kaczorowski, with its snow globe-filled shelves, is straight out of a dozen 1950s drawing-room comedies. Since, like the tradition it honors, the show uses a curtain, even if you resist standing ovations you’ll need to rise to view the mugging shtick when the cast emerges through the curtain slit, opera-style, to bask in your applause.
Living on Love
220 W. 48 Street
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).