Williamstown Theatre Festival's 'Living on Love': Comedy's bones rise on Main Stage (Review)


WILLIAMSTOWN -- In approaching "Peccadillo," a 1985 comedy by the late Garson Kanin, playwright Joe Di Pietro has taken the bones of a play that Kanin had only just "started and never had a chance to really make ... work and turn(ed) it into something new," he told The Boston Globe in a June 28 interview.

Di Pietro has shifted Kanin's comedy about Vito De Angelis, a maestro in the most lavish, self-aborbed sense of the word, and his opera diva wife, Raquel, back in time to 1957 and made Raquel, rather than retired, an international opera star who is edging past her prime.

The result is "Living on Love," a frothy, blessedly zany affair that is having the time of its life on the Williamstown Theatre Festival's Main Stage.

The pre-opening buzz around this stylish Kathleen Marshall-directed production has centered on international opera star Renée Fleming's debut as a stage actress in the role of Raquel -- "call me diva," she says to an adoring fan, Robert Samson (Justin Long), whom she has hired to ghostwrite her memoirs after her husband has fired him from ghostwriting his memoirs and replaced him with the unadorned Iris Peabody (Anna Chlumsky), an eager young assistant junior editor at the maestro's publishing house who has never written a book in her life.

While Fleming doesn't bring the full palette of colors an actress who is more at home in the theater might bring, Fleming is never less than engaging. Poised at the tipping point between effort and comfort, Fleming handles herself ably enough; more than ably in those affecting moments when the diva exhales and exposes a vulnerable human being resignedly acknowledging the realities of life in a profession that is not always kind to performing artists as they tip-toe past their prime.

And, yes, Fleming does get to sing.

Marshall has placed Fleming within a comfort zone of highly skilled, welcoming actors who go for broke in a comedy whose knowingly improbable plot coasts on the currents of farce, near anarchy and sharp wit. This is old-fashioned laugh-making in the very best sense.

Long is pitch-perfect as a nerd who alternates between helplessness and authority; a would-be novelist who has written 300 pages of his great American novel but has little in the way of life experience -- especially with women -- to give it authenticity. It should come as no surprise to anyone in the audience that that circumstance will change once Chlumsky's appealing Iris -- Sills' heavily Italian-accented maestro calls her "Irish" -- enters the scene.

Like Robert, Iris is fastidious about facts, adept at separating the truths of Vito and Raquel's lives from the fiction each of them wants to foist on their public. But Iris also has an ambition the less certain Robert has yet to gain. Dismissed by the good-old-boy culture in her office, Iris is eager to prove herself. She believes her editing skills will more than make up for her lack of experience as a writer.

Like Robert, in the end, Iris does not suffer fools gladly. She might very nearly succumb to the maestro's compulsive need to seduce her under cover of giving her a lesson in conducting Ravel's "Bolero" -- she is, after all, a woman and the maestro is possessed with an abundance of continental charm -- but she also is a pragmatist and she knows where her true heart lies.

Overseeing the goings-on is the De Angelis' two-person live-in household staff -- Bruce and Eric (respectively, Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson), a colorful Tweedle-Dum / Tweedle-Dee duo who reveal more than a few surprises of their own as they go about the business of protecting their own home and this couple by making sure the playing field -- a lavish New York penthouse (evocatively and practically designed by Derek McLane) -- is kept in neat, tidy order even when their employers' lives are not. For Bruce and Eric, work is a labor of love.

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As much as Marshall has shaped a tightly woven ensemble here, in so many ways "Living on Love" is Sills' show with a performance that looms larger than life without crashing through the threshhold. In his physical manner, his phrasing and timing, it feels, at times, as if Sills, without realizing it, is channeling the great Sid Caesar.

Sills' mane of grey hair is at once tousled and under control. His maestro puffs frantically at cigarettes. His bile rises when he is publicly reminded that he is no Leonard Bernstein. By this point in his life, Vito has become his own grand invention. But within the construct of "Living on Love," one is never too old to come of age and indulge in a bit of reinvention.

While the world at large seems to be in free fall, "Living on Love," with its keen blend of silliness and wit, is an invigorating tonic.

Theater Review

LIVING ON LOVE by Joe DiPietro. Based on the play "Peccadillo" by Garson Kanin. Directed by Kathleen Marshall; scenic design, Derek McLane; costume designer, Michael Krass; lighting design, Peter Kaczorowski; sound designer, Scott Lehrer; music coordinator, Rob Fisher; dialect coach, Deborah Hecht; hair and wig design, Tom Watson. Through July 26. Eves.: 7:30 Wed., Thu.; 8 Fri., Sat. Mats.: 2 Thu.; 3:30 Sat. Williamstown Theatre Festival, Main Stage, ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St. (Route 2), Williamstown. Tickets: $65. (413) 597-3400; wtfestival.org. 2 hours 9 minutes

Robert Samson Justin Long

Bruce Blake Hammond

Eric Scott Robertson

Vito De Angelis Douglas Sills

Raquel De Angelis Renée Fleming

Iris Peabody Anna Chlumsky


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