Sometimes, what happens in Williamstown really oughta stay in Williamstown. That Berkshires burg with its annual summer-theater festival has been sending shows to Broadway left (The Elephant Man, a hit earlier this season) and right (The Visit, opening later this week). Last year’s The Bridges of Madison County started off at Williamstown, a siren call to stars looking for a summer fling or producers angling for a cheap tryout in country surroundings. So the Broadway lure has shone a more intense spotlight on what is essentially a middlebrow summer-stock playhouse. Now comes Living On Love, Joe DiPietro’s adaptation of Pecadillo, the last comedy by Garson Kanin, written in 1985 as a summer-stock lark for Christopher Plummer and Glynis Johns.
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Both plays concern a skirt-chasing conductor and his opera diva wife, self-loving egomaniacs facing age and irrelevance, and the two young writers assigned to help them write their autobiographies. It’s pleasurable to imagine a pair of consummate pros like Plummer and and Johns chewing the scenery in Fort Lauderdale, where Pecadillo was first produced (it never made it to Broadway, despite Kanin’s legendary comic gifts as the prolific author of, among so many other classics, Born Yesterday). Indeed, it’s more of a pleasure than reviewing this sledgehammer production, notwithstanding Fleming’s obvious, if incomprehensible, devotion to it. She does at least get to sing a bit.
Vito is played by Douglas Sills with everything you’d expect of a comic Italian stereotype: malaprops galore, a leering gaze, peripatetic hands, flaring nostrils, animated hair, etc. His initial ghost writer (or “spooky helper” as Vito puts it, one of those manufactured mistranslations that exists only in writers’ minds) is Robert Samson (Jerry O’Connell, charmingly funny if miscast), who’s out of his league with a prevaricator of Vito’s self-deluding mastery.
When Robert is replaced by the lovely editor Iris Peabody (Veep‘s Anna Chlumsky, a treasure of comic timing and the show’s major asset), the jealous Raquel hires Robert to writer her autobiography and possibly care for her cherished companion Puccini, a Pomeranian/Pekingese thingy last seen in Bullets Over Broadway. There are also two valets (Blake Hammond and Scott Robinson), who sing arias when no one is around and may be angling to understudy Tuptim and Lun Tha uptown in The King And I.
Designers Derek McLane (set), Peter Kaczorowski (lighting) and especially Michael Krass (costumes) have outdone themselves: This show looks fabulous. Parodying divas and maestros is easy business, not that there’s anything wrong with a little slapstick in the diet.
DiPietro’s script is so inside in its opera references and jokes, sonic and visual, that you may find yourself gasping for air, though probably not from the laughs that director Kathleen Marshall works overtime extracting. The great Fleming is a trouper but she’s slumming here. It’s possible to imagine this as the perfect diversion for a summer evening on sabbatical from Tanglewood. But on Broadway, it’s piffle, forgotten by the time you reach the corner to hail a cab.
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