'Living on Love': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Renee Fleming and Douglas Sills in 'Living on Love'
The diva is divine, but there's nothing here we can't already hum

Renee Fleming and Douglas Sills play married classical music stars sparring over rival memoirs in Joe DiPietro's comedy, which also features Anna Chlumsky and Jerry O'Connell.

The acronym used in theater chat rooms to discuss the unlikely Broadway entry Living on Love is the same as the 21st century shorthand for hilarity: LOL. But there's nothing contemporary and too little that's consistently funny about playwright Joe DiPietro's refried serving of Peccadillo, a minor Garson Kanin comedy from 1985. First seen at the Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer, the new version does have a thoroughbred casting coup in its favor: the sporting turn of celebrated lyric soprano Renee Fleming as fading opera diva Raquel De Angelis. But when Raquel is not onstage trilling with vainglorious self-adulation and encroaching terror of her professional decline, the fizz quickly evaporates.

"Did I just hear the birds singing?" wonders Raquel as she glides into the room accompanied by her own airborne ribbon of "la-la-la's." "Oh no, that was me!" Her giddy delight in her gifts requires no external endorsements, and her lothario husband of 30 years, Italian classical conductor Vito (Douglas Sills), is mostly too intoxicated by his own talent and charms to supply them. But Raquel finds an adoring fan in Robert Samson (Jerry O'Connell), the latest in a series of ghostwriters hired by Vito's publisher to work on his memoir, Call Me Maestro, before being customarily fired by the uncooperative subject.

Vito proves more willing to collaborate with the pretty young Iris Peabody (Anna Chlumsky), an enterprising junior staffer sent by the publishing house to ask for the return of his advance. His shameless flirtation — and the couple's cash-flow worries — prompt Raquel to retaliate by hiring Robert to work on her own book, Call Me Diva. This sets in motion a race to see who can finish first. However, progress on both projects is hampered by the couple's aversion to the unembellished facts, amusingly illustrated in Raquel's fabricated accounts of overcoming polio as a child or working with missionaries in the Congo.

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The comedy takes place in 1957 and is played out entirely on a single set, a swank Manhattan penthouse apartment, designed by Derek McLane with lots of fancy chintz and a rear foyer wall plastered with framed mementos of the residents’ illustrious careers. But while DiPietro and director Kathleen Marshall (taking a breather from her usual musical turf) treat the material like farce, it lacks accelerating mayhem.

Marshall does attempt to inject some effervescence in scene changes carried out by the De Angelis household's two middle-aged butlers (Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson), who are the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of opera queens, singing along with gusto to various recordings. However, this gets tired fast. And while there's still time, can we please call a Broadway moratorium on the audience-pandering trick of revealing a secret gay relationship like it's a box of cute kittens?

Despite its odor of mothballs, the thin play coasts along agreeably enough until a lethal Act II scene between Iris and Robert, during which they compare notes on their respective collaborations and stumble upon their own romantic impulses, as Vito and Raquel concoct unrealistic scenarios of running off with their young amanuenses.

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Anyone who has seen Chlumsky's fine work on Veep knows how skillfully she can underplay comedy. But her role here is written with too little dimension or consistency; she's sweetly maladroit one minute, improbably savvy the next. And there's minimal chemistry between the actress and O'Connell, who is hopelessly miscast. Justin Long reportedly was funny in the role at Williamstown, but O'Connell has a way of sucking the comic energy out of the room. He's unconvincing as a nerdy writer who's been toiling away at the Great American Novel, and watching him swoon while lip-synching to Raquel's recording of Tosca is, frankly, a tad embarrassing.

Sills is a wily old pro who sails through the proceedings with brio in a one-note role, piling on the prosciutto with a thick Italian accent straight out of a pasta commercial. ("I make-a the love to the entire humming chorus of-a Madama Butterfly.") Flopping around in silk pajamas, he pushes Vito's self-mythologizing narcissism to precipitous heights, fuming with indignation every time Leonard Bernstein is mentioned. What Sills does with Vito's mop of silver hair alone is comedy gold. But if the inevitable reaffirmation of his bond with Raquel doesn't carry much of a romantic charge, that's perhaps because Marshall has allowed the actors to create their characterizations as solo turns, not as part of a quartet.

However, as far as solo turns go, it's impossible not to enjoy Fleming's. Hard as it is to believe this is the singer's first time in a play, it makes sense that someone who comes from a background in opera — where control and delivery are vital — would have such great timing. She's priceless as she contemplates her future, dropping her voice an octave on the dreaded word "mezzo," or wondering with a blithe lack of self-awareness, "How much longer can I play the young, tragic virgin? Ten, maybe 20 years?" Her performance is broad and campy, as the material dictates, but there's also a delightful airiness to it. Just watch Raquel scoop up her Pomeranian, Puccini, and float out of the room cooing, "O mio babbino caro." (By the way, kudos to the pooch for wearing a pharaoh's bejeweled headdress with such forbearance.) Fleming might not be this woman, but she's certainly encountered divas like her.

She also looks smashing in Michael Krass' fun costumes, which manage to be elegant and faintly over-the-top at the same time. Would that the play achieved that tricky balance with such panache. 

Cast: Renee Fleming, Douglas Sills, Anna Chlumsky, Jerry O'Connell, Blake Hammond, Scott Robertson

Director: Kathleen Marshall

Playwright: Joe DiPietro, based on the play 'Peccadillo,' by Garson Kanin

Set designer: Derek McLane

Costume designer: Michael Krass

Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski

Sound designer: Scott Lehrer

Presented by Scott Landis, Philip Morgaman, Ryan Chang, Just for Laughs Theatricals, Glass Half Full Productions, Stephanie P. McClelland, Judith M. Box, No Saucy Productions, Alix Ritchie/John Yonover, in association with Williamstown Theatre Festival

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