Living On Love by Joe DiPietro, based on the play "Peccadillo" by Garson Kanin. Directed by Kathleen Marshall. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"...remain blissfully ignorant of the circumstances."
There are six excellent reasons to go and see "Living On Love" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. There are also five very good reasons to see it and there are four plain old reasons to attend. That's a lot of reasons to see this new comedy right now. The first six reasons are easy ones to name: Renee Fleming, Douglas Sills, Blake Hammond, Scott Robertson, Anna Chlumsky, Justin Long; each of them brings to light unforgettable moments on stage.
The second five are also easy to put names to: Kathleen Marshall, Joe DiPietro, Derek McLane, Michael Krass, Scott Lehrer. These first eleven elements are responsible for what you get in the theater at each performance. So much talent has been applied to the product that you cannot fail to enjoy the sum of these talented parts. More on each in a moment.
The final four plain old reasons are not so simple. They are: laughter, honesty, parody and Garson Kanin. Laughter fills the house and you will laugh, I promise you, as the six members of the company do what they do best. Honesty intrudes itself at a moment in the second act when everything around it feels like charades and foreplay to seduction. Parody is paramount as the world of classical music artists is given the finest Hollywoodized translation you can imagine. Garson Kanin created the characters and the basis for this new comedy back in 1985; it was his last produced play and - with a very different ending - found no producers to take it to Broadway. It folded in Ft. Lauderdale, breathed its last in Rochester and limped home to Kanin's archives a severely wounded script.
Kanin was a known entity on Broadway starting in 1936. He went to Hollywood that same year and doubled his influence. With his wife, actress and author Ruth Gordon, he created some of the greatest film hits for Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Out of one of them he took the actress Judy Holiday and made her into a major star with his play "Born Yesterday." He wrote this final play while Gordon was dying and in some ways the original, larger than life heroine in "Peccadillo" may have been a recreation of Gordon in her heyday. In Born Yesterday, Paul - a writer who becomes the mentor of the heroine and her lover as well - says "I want everybody to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in." In the play which has been transformed into "Living On Love" he presents us with the quintessence of that statement. Each character discovers exactly what is needed to succeed on his or her own path to a happy life.
Joe DiPietro, in adapting Kanin's last stagework, has found different paths for these characters, far more traditional ones and actually more satisfying directions. Many of Kanin's situations and disclosures happen in different places in the new play. The four principals end up in a manifestly different relationships. There is more laughter in the lines, even if some of them are vastly predictable. The use of characteristic parody is a bit overwhelming in this new version as the heroine is still an active operatic diva while in the original she is not pursuing that career. A few verbal jokes from the original have been discarded in favor of something new and not as funny. It's a balancing act for this new play and generally speaking it works. We laugh. We have a good time. Although the principal couple are a bit thinner as people go they are still worthy of our attention and our time.
Douglas Sills and Renee Fleming are that couple. He is gorgeous in silk pajamas and even more gorgeous in white tie and tails. She is stunningly beautiful and breaks into flashes of vocalism, Puccini often and others less often (no spoilers out of my pen). She may well be a wonderful actress but the writing and direction of her character leave us with more parody then person. Certainly her final scenes are touching and real and will be treasured memories. Sills is a wonderful character actor and his character is not as over-the-top as Kanin's version allowed, but it is marvelous to watch him threaten, cajole, seduce and be mollified.
The second couple are played by Anna Chlumsky and Justin Long. She is pretty and has a wonderful way with the character, giving Iris Peabody all she is worth. This character, as portrayed, is as close to the original intention as possible given the very different path DiPietro has sent her down. She does a wonderful job of humorously entertaining us while remaining a humorless character. Long's Robert is a hefty distance from the original, but he is such a charming young actor that even his near-pratfalls are fun and seem right. This is good casting.
As the servants, Eric and Bruce, Scott Robertson and Blake Hammond are wonderful. Their first exit got a small ovation and throughout the play they are the transforming members of the company.
They play has been moved from the mid-1980s to the late 1950s and that is a shame, really, as it puts Fleming into one of the ugliest costumes ever created for her first entrance. For the most part the costumes are grand, the creations of Michael Krass. The set by Derek McLane is beautiful but ultimately a bit dull as not enough changes, the windows don't show a world and the set decorations are a celebration of celebrity in the background with no true trappings of the home-owners worldliness in the foreground. The use of music throughout is perfectly designed by Scott Lehrer.
Director Kathleen Marshall has done a simply wonderful job with this play. She has created a small microcosm of a world and moved its occupants through it like master puppeteer. Her use of physical comedy bring an almost Noel Coward sensibility into the final scene of Act Two and her staging of the curtain calls makes this play about an opera singer into a play about the world of opera. DO NOT MISS IT.
The original play never made it to Broadway. This new version stands a chance of repeating that fate, but you never know. To assure yourself a place in theatrical history you should plan on seeing it now. You'll enjoy it immensely but come away knowing that you've thoroughly enjoyed a piece of fluff, a bit of theater history and an easy road to amusement. You won't mind. You will have had a good time.
Scott Robertson, Justin Long, Blake Hammond; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Douglas Sills and Anna Chlumsky; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Renee Fleming and Douglas Sills; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Living On Love plays at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, located 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA through July 26 ONLY. For information and tickets call the box office 413-597-3400 or go on line at www.wtfestival.org.