By Brian Scott Lipton
Can asking one of the world’s greatest female opera singers to play a self-absorbed, tempestuous opera singer who refers to herself as “the Diva” really be considered casting against type? Anyone who has had personal dealings with the American superstar Renee Fleming knows the answer is yes, which makes her fine Broadway debut in Tony Award winner Joe DiPietro’s featherweight comedy “Living on Love” (an update of Garson Kanin’s little-known comedy “Peccadillo), now at the Longacre Theatre, seem all the more accomplished.
Under Kathleen Marshall’s savvy direction, and costumed beautifully by Michael Krass, Fleming has likely borrowed some mannerisms from her less-down-to-earth opera contemporaries (and some line readings, I think, from Joan Collins in “Dynasty”) to help create a believable portrait of Raquel De Angelis, a middle-aged opera singer who knows her best years may be behind her – even if she still sings gloriously (as is evidenced many times throughout the two-act show when Fleming trills in her still-thrilling soprano).
Raquel isn’t just fighting for her career, but for the survival of her 30-year marriage to the vain and temperamental conductor, “Maestro” Vito De Angelis (played with consummate bravado by a pajama-clad Douglas Sills.) With the couple’s finances in shambles, Vito has agreed to write his autobiography, but his unwillingness to actually work on the book has cost him a half-dozen ghostwriters, including Truman Capote and J.D. Salinger. (Oh, by the way, we’re in 1957).
And his latest collaborator, Robert Sansom (a remarkably game Jerry O’Connell), has quickly become fed up with Vito, especially since he’s really a priggish novelist who only took the job to get close to Raquel. Robert gets his wish – and far more than he bargained for – after publishing house assistant editor Iris Peabody (a strikingly funny Anna Chlumsky) comes to the De Angelis’ stunning penthouse (beautifully designed by Derek McLane) to get the advance money back from Vito.
Soon, Iris is working with – and being wooed – by the slimily seductive Vito, and Raquel has hired the moon-faced, starry-eyed Robert to not only co-author her own autobiography, but to help make Vito jealous (which includes persuading Robert to take off his shirt and smear his bare chest with olive oil). Of course, the answer to the ultimate question of who will end up with whom is really never in doubt.
DiPietro’s script, which mixes soigné sophistication and silly slapstick, is entertaining enough, especially for those with some knowledge of the opera world. But it also has the same amount of empty calories as the champagne flowing on stage. Indeed, the most nutritious part of this meal is provided by the pair’s fawning servants, Eric and Bruce (the equally remarkable Scott Robertson and Blake Hammond), who have a secret to share and a lesson to teach.
Still, Fleming’s fans — who may never get to see their idol this close-up again – will likely eat every morsel up, and the rest of us will be satisfied by the copious ham on wry on stage. I wouldn’t make plays like “Living on Love” a steady diet, but you could dine on far worse tripe for one night.
The Longacre Theatre. 220 W. 48th Street. Running time: 2 hours
*Photos: Joan Marcus