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First Nighter: 'Living on Love' Proves Insufficient, Even With Renée Fleming

04/20/2015 06:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015

What do you get when you cross Noel Coward's Private Lives with the Cole Porter-Samuel Spewack-Bella Spewack Kiss Me, Kate? You get cross. That's what you get. You get especially cross if what you get is Joe DiPietro's Living on Love at the Longacre, which he's based on Garson Kanin's 1985 play, Peccadillo.

Never mind that it's directed by Kathleen Marshall who choreographed the last, and top-flight, Kiss Me, Kate revival and that it represents what may be the start of Renée Fleming's full transition from the opera stage to the legit stage. Never mind that against heavy odds the always amusing Douglas Sills is once again extremely entertaining as a narcissistic maestro, who -like most (all?) maestros -- insists on being addressed as maestro.

I admit to not having seen Kanin's version, which played a few towns back then with Christopher Plummer and Glynis Johns heading the cast, but which never made it to Broadway. But it sounds as if DiPietro hasn't strayed too far from a plot so skimpy that if were it food, it would hardly qualify as a hors d'oeuvre.

It's 1957 and Vito De Angelis (Sills), with his thick Italian accent, has accepted and spent a $50,000 advance from Little, Brown to write a memoir, but refuses to get down to work with Robert Samson (Jerry O'Connell), his seventh ghost writer. The fulminating Vito is giving Robert the heave-ho, just as Little, Brown flunky Iris Peabody (Anna Chlumsky) arrives to demand some evidence of the supposed book.

That's also when diva wife Raquel De Angelis (Fleming), who demands to be called diva, comes home with pooch Puccini (Trixie) and after byplay not worth going into, determines that, as Vito strong-arms Iris into becoming his eighth ghost writer, she'll hire Robert to ghost the memoir she determines she'll write and for which she secures a $50,001 advance. That's the tenor (no pun intended) of their love-hate relationship.

For the rest of the two-hour, two-act-with-intermission time, Vito and Raquel confound each other and their ghostwriter-stooges with trumped up biographical data that's meant to be funny but isn't. Just about nothing in the script, as Kanin wrote it and DiPietro has toyed with it, is more than slight-smile provoking.

It may be that DiPietro's biggest contribution is locating as many opportunities as possible for Fleming to burst into song. (Sound designer Scott wafts in plenty of appropriate music, starting with Mozart's Marriage of Figaro overture.) DiPietro may also have beefed up the comments about opera singers facing up to their voices losing luster, since at this point in her celebrated career, it's of some concern to leading-lady Fleming, too.

One of DiPietro's (and Kanin's?) ideas for humor is taking a gag line and repeating it until the audience could be repeating it along with the actor. The hammered line -- benign in the quoting -- goes: "And there's nothing anybody can do about it." Eventually the repetition acquires the old fingernails-scraping-on-blackboard feel.

The quip is uttered by one of two butlers who wait hand, foot and poker face on Vito and Raquel in the sumptuous drawing room Walt Spangler has designed for them. The Tweedledum and Tweedledee servants are Eric (Scott Robertson) and Bruce (Blake Hammond). Before they vouchsafe a secret about themselves, they're often used to rearrange furniture between scenes and cover costume changes. Threatening to steal the show, they do their best work playing the piano and singing Eddie Cantor's signature "Makin' Whoopee," as the other couples prepare for a before-closing candle-lit dinner featuring rich formal wear Michael Krass designed.

And yes, Robert and Iris become a couple, just as patrons knew they would, and just as all the other story developments take the predictable turn. This mightn't be wearying were DiPietro able to keep the laughs spilling from a comedy cornucopia. Instead, he reiterates other clichés about histrionic opera personae. For instance, Vito's professional nemesis is Leonard Bernstein, which occasions a couple of numb Bernstein jokes.

One of the major concerns about the comedy is how Fleming disports herself in it. She's perfectly fine as she swans hither and yon in her chic '50s outfits and acting the bigger-than-life figure she must know too many people assume these opera house denizens to be. No, she's not the world's best theater comedienne yet, but she holds her own in a script that includes -- are you surprised? -- Maria Callas cracks.

O'Connell is more than anything called on to express exasperation, and he's certainly good at that. He's also required to take his shirt off and, at Raquel's request, douse himself with oil. He's buff enough to withstand the humiliation. Chlumsky's Iris isn't the rewarding role she had earlier this season in the You Can't Take It With You revival, but she injects some life into the sad sack would-be editor.

From the evidence offered here, there's little mystery as to why Kanin's initial run-up never reached the Great White Way. But for La Fleming's presence, it probably wouldn't have this time, either, after its preliminary Williamstown exposure last summer. Maybe the way to regard Living on Love is to think of it as Lend Me a Diva and thus a companion piece for Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor and go from there.

Another way to look at it has to do with snow globes. Raquel and Vito collect them. A few dozen are displayed on a series of shelves. Some are even hurled before final fade-out. But what do you usually do with snow globes? You turn them upside down, shake them and then watch the fake snow fall through the water enclosed for a perhaps a minute of bland prettiness. What you get when you cross this crossed Private Lives and Kiss Me, Kate are a few moments of bland silliness.