On the way home from a delightful afternoon at Williamstown Theatre Festival’s “Living on Love,” I thought about the way language defines the three pairs at the heart of the show and provides many of the laughs.
The couples — Raquel (Renee Fleming) and Vito (Douglas Sills) as a married, musical couple of 30 years who talk at each other, even calling each other “husband” and “wife”; Iris (Anna Chlumsky) and Robert (Justin Long), young colleagues at Little, Brown, who talk to each other to figure things out in the cockamamie world around them; and servants Bruce (Blake Hammond) and Eric (Scott Robertson), who finish each other’s sentences and sing opera together when no one else is around.
But there are many other sources of hilarity, thanks to the clever writing of Joe DiPietro (from a script by Garson Kanin) and the inspired direction of Kathleen Marshall. Even the perfunctory curtain speech about cell phones and exits is fresh, and the fast-paced production features plenty of physical shtick, amusing stage pictures, droll line deliveries, crisp comic timing and a funny curtain call.
It’s 1957, in, as the program says, “a glorious Manhattan penthouse,” thanks to Derek McLane’s scenic design. Occupants? Famous diva Raquel, a woman d’un certain age, and her husband, Vito, an Italian maestro, also d’un certain age — which only they know for sure.
The marriage has grown stale and their careers are on the decline: He substitutes for indisposed conductors, and her next tour features stops in Poughkeepsie and Fort Lauderdale.
Vito has agreed to write his autobiography, with the help of Robert. When Iris comes from the publishers to press Vito for completion, he turns on the Latin charm (mid-life crisis?), whereupon Raquel, piqued, hires Robert to write her autobiography. Romantic tit-for-tat, with a funny and satisfying denouement.
The story feels like a comic opera plot itself, with shenanigans from the upper, middle and servant classes. Music by, among others, Puccini, Mozart and Bizet peppers the proceedings, and — yes — Fleming gets to use her lustrous singing voice.
Elsewhere this great soprano has fun playing the diva, and her timing and expressive face serve the part well.
Hammond and Robertson snap to throughout with amusing precision, and their extended scene in Act II goes to unexpected emotional places, beautifully paced. Chlumsky’s Iris is the sweetest thing this side of Mary Pickford. Plucky, pure — but still waters run deep. Her transformation is winning. Douglas Sills’s Vito is as self-dramatizing as Raquel, but with a temper: Vito would just as soon kill you as conduct Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Dressed in beautiful silk pajamas and robes (courtesy of Michael Krass), Sills is like a Renaissance lord of the manor, sure of his authority and completely oblivious to the reality of any situation.
Finally, Justin Long: a gifted comedian, like Buster Keaton in his physicality and occasional hangdog look. His Robert is earnest and always just a behind the eight ball. Long turns what might have been simply a foil to the grander characters into a three-dimensional person.
The full house had a ball at Sunday’s matinee, and if you can score a ticket, you will as well.