By Karen Isaacs
The drawing room comedy is getting its due on Broadway this season with Living on Love at the Longacre Theater on Broadway.
For those unfamiliar with the genre — it has been mostly absent from Broadway — it features a beautiful apartment or house (and mainly the living room), glamorous and apparently wealthy characters, witty dialogue, servants, and a plot where the most serious conflict may be whether to stir or shake the martinis.
No major issues, no earth-shattering ideas, no serious heart-ache. No one dies or gets destroyed.
For much of the 20th century the drawing room comedy was a standard theatrical genre with outstanding examples written by Somerset Maugham, some of Noöl Coward (though he often reveals more true emotion that is usual), and in the United States Philip Barry and S. N. Behrman. I still recall The Pleasure of His Company which was turned into a film with Fred Astaire and Lili Palmer.
Living on Love is adapted by Joe DePietro from Garson Kanin’s 1985 play Peccadillo which never made it to Broadway. It had a Florida production that starred Christopher Plummer, Glynis Johns and Kelly McGillis.
We have the requisite glamorous people — in this case Vito De Angelis a conductor whom everyone calls “Maestro” and his wife, the opera singer Raquel De Angelis, who is referred to as “Diva.” They are living, in 1957, in a gorgeous Manhattan penthouse attended to by two male servants who have been with them for years.
But everything is not as perfect as it could be. Both Maestro and Diva are aging and their careers are not booming as once they did. The money isn’t pouring in. Leonard Bernstein is the new hot conductor — just the mention of his name sends Maestro into spasms, and Maria Callas is getting the parts and salary that Diva once did.
As the play opens, a young author, Robert Samson is waiting for Maestro to emerge from his bedroom to continue work on his autobiography. He’s been given a $50,000 advance but so far, he has fired six ghostwriters and Samson (the 7th) only has two pages written. Not only does Maestro want to dictate it, he is also perennially late. Soon Diva arrives from her tour which has not been a big success and Samson gushes over her. Enter Iris Peabody, a young junior assistant editor who arrives to deliver bad news: the publishers want their advance back.
But all is not lost — suddenly Maestro is willing to work with Iris and Diva decides that her memoirs would be more
interesting and will work with Samson to write them.
What transpires is predictable. Both of the older couple think that the young writers are enamored of them all the while sniping at their spouse. In the meantime Iris and Robert begin to get together as they both have to cope with the outsized egos of the two musicians.
Since the stories always tend to be lightweight, evaluating a drawing room comedy means judging how silly it all is (relatively), the level of wit, the production values and of course the performances and direction. Does it move? Are the characters appropriately outrageous or civilized?
The productions values — scenic design by Derek McLane, costumes by Michael Krass – are glamorous. The penthouse looks terrific and the costumes for the Maestro and Diva may not be authentic but will fulfill how you imagine these people to dress.
Director Kathleen Marshall keeps the pace up so that we don’t ponder for too long the absurdity of it all.
The star of this production is a real life opera diva — Renée Fleming. Ms. Fleming acquits herself very well though I hope she is not quite so melodramatic in reality. But the plus is that she offers snippets of her glorious voice. Douglas Sills, who I had enjoyed in the touring company of The Addams Family (in fact I preferred him to Nathan Lane), plays the over-the-top Maestro with a mane of grey-white hair that becomes charmingly disarranged. This is a man who believes his press clippings.
As the two young writers, their roles are so much blander yet they are needed to balance the extravagance of the older couple. Anna Chlumsky and Jerry O’Connell do the most they can with these sincere, young and mostly dull characters. Playwright Joe DiPietro needed to make them more interesting.
Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson are delights as the two servants, Bruce and Eric, who keep the household running and are not surprised at anything their employers do or say.
Living on Love is a pleasant theatrical “junk food” that will amuse you but not strain your brain. It is a limited run through Aug. 2. Tickets are available through Telecharge.