Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 20, 2015
Living on Love by Joe DiPietro. Based on the Play "Peccadillo" by Garson Kanin. Directed by Kathleen Marhsall. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Michael Krass. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by Scott Lehrer. Wig & hair design by Tom Watson. Animal Trainer William Berloni. Cast: Renée Fleming, Douglas Sills, Anna Chlumsky, Jerry O'Connell, with Blake Hammond, Scott Robertson, and Trixie as Puccini.
Yes, that Renée Fleming: she of the deep but darkly shining lyric soprano that in recent years has made her one of opera's genuine American starsso great that it led her to be the first such singer to perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl (last year). Not that such a background automatically entitles or prepares anyone for Broadway, of course, though it follows that anyone who can hold the stages at Covent Garden, the Met, and plenty of others (let's leave aside La Scala for now) can probably be trusted to make a respectable attempt.
She does indeed, and not just when singing. (Yes, yes, there's plenty of that, don't worry.) No one is likely to mistake her for, say, Cherry Jones, or anyone for whom the art of stage acting has been a lifelong pursuit. Just as one from the Broadway world could not necessarily hop effortlessly into opera, so too does Fleming have her rough spots. Her delivery can be a bit broad at times, her emotions approximate rather than specific, and her comic timing, if demonstrably present, is inconsistent.
But she nonetheless provides exactly what's required of Raquel De Angelis. An opera singer (fancy that) living in a suave New York penthouse in 1957 (the drool-worthy scenic design is by Derek McLane), she's brash, lusty, and take-no-prisoners, in every way living as big as she does when playing Lucia di Lammermoor or La Bohème. Demanding, a perfectionist, forever intensely (if, at times, fantastically) aware of and in charge of her imagethese are qualities Fleming has no trouble projecting with absolute authority.
So much does the playwright adore these personalities, in fact, that he's structured every moment of his writing around them, if to only occasionally sparkling effect. His story concerns a young writer named Robert Samson (Jerry O'Connell), who is the latest in a long line of hired hands (who have also included Truman Capote and J.D. Salinger) who are trying to craft Vito's life story into a compelling memoir. But Vitoor Maestro, as he prefers to be calledseldom gets up early, and can't tell a coherent story to save his life.
Once Robert becomes entangled in the process, the publisher sends another editor, Iris Peabody (Anna Chlumsky) in to rescue him. She gets trapped, too, naturally, and lassoed in to ghostwriting Maestro's autobiography once Raquel appropriates Robert for herself. And given the natural rifts that their professional arrangements have already eroded in their lives, Raquel and Maestro, when in the presence of younger and far more attractive admirers, start imagining, and then putting into motion, plans to satisfy their own decaying needs.
Once the battle lines are drawn (which happens well before the end of the first act), there's not a lot of new ground for DiPietro to tread, and he struggles to avoid clichés as he plods toward his conclusion. What starts off as a fizzy, no-frills entertainment becomes squishily maudlin, in large part because there's nowhere else for it to go. If the evening never stops working, exactly, it's only because the technique is efficient; you won't exactly be risking too many brain cells in trying to puzzle out who ends up with whom, or under what circumstances.
The director is Kathleen Marshall, who provides gentle, pleasant staging bereft of any of the high stakes or breakneck speed that might characterize a more effective farce; it's not exciting, but it suffices, and sometimes does better than that. Michael Krass's costumes strike just the right notes of pedestrian for the "little" people and garishly outlandish for Raquel and Vito; even Raquel's adorable little dog, Puccini (an ideally cast Trixie) gets to sport a flamboyant Aida headdress at one point.
Anything goes here, and the performers all fare well as long as they realize it. O'Connell plays Robert too straight, too on-the-level, to avoid getting swallowed up by his costars; Robert's supposed to be an opera devotee himself, but lacks the touch of crazy that would make him a believable diva worshiper. Chlumsky is much more of a delight, first appearing staid and businesslike and revealing her inner zany only gradually as Iris gets caught up in the De Angelis's black hole. Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson have tiny roles as servants, but play them with just the right balance of wry stuffiness that shows you about how real anyone can remain when they're wiling away their lives around this kind of larger-than-life couple. (They also get a choice running gag involving them changing the scene, and vocalizing themselves, in between scenes.)
Whether anyone in the De Angelis's positions could be realor would even want to beis an open question, and one that DiPietro essentially forgoes in favor of a conventional romance with as few sharp edges as possible. There's no blood drawn here, and no chances taken, and thus the play is as ultimately forgettable as it is in-the-moment enjoyable. Even so, Living on Love doesn't pretend to be more than it is: a vehicle for a great star in one medium to try her hand in another. For those of us who don't get to the opera much, it's a pleasure to watch Fleming glide so easily into that responsibility, even if she doesn't have much to sink her teeth into once she arrives.