In the 1940s and ’50s summer theatres popped up all over the place, particularly in New England, where every other town boasted of one. Westport, Ct. had two; Hyannis, Falmouth, Dennis, all on Cape Cod had one each. Next door so did Newport, Rhode Island. Olney in Maryland, Stockbridge in Massachusetts, Ivoryton and East Hampton and so forth and so on, all opening around Memorial Day to attract summer theatre lovers, for most of Broadway went into hibernation in those pre-air conditioning days. There were musical tents in abundance as well, and the much-missed Subway Circuit run by the diminutive showman Jules Leventhal, who would pick up the rights to a Broadway play that was closing in June, and offer the cast including the star (he loved stars) another six weeks employment in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens in what he called “a lovely vacation by the sea”, all reached by subway.
The cast was paid stock minimum (about $46 a week each), the star got as many thousands as he/she could command. The theatres were large second rate neighborhood movie palaces with 1500 seats or more, far more than the plays’ original homes on Broadway. He was able to lure the likes of Ethel Barrymore in her hit The Corn Is Green. Diana Barrymore put on armor in Joan of Lorraine in which Ingrid Bergman had starred on Broadway, but Bergman couldn’t tour as she was under contract to David Selznick who did not like his stars risking all by appearing live on stage. So Ms. Barrymore, who was doing a bit of imbibing in those days, would join her audience at the matinees, by having a beer with them in the intermissions, still dressed in Joan’s armor, at the bar next door to the theatre. Everyone seemed to enjoy that. Even top star Tallulah Bankhead dared to endure an outing in The Ziegfeld Follies, which gave up the ghost somewhere in New Jersey or Pennsylvania. Many a comedy, usually with just one set, a star role or two, would follow the same route. Which brings us to this season’s late entry, at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway, a light comedy called Living on Love.
It’s exactly the sort of item the summer crowd would have loved. Originally written in 1968 by the venerable author/director Garson Kanin, it tried the “straw hat” circuit. By the late sixties, regional not-for-profit theatres had become the fashion, and they more or less replaced the old barns and town halls that had served as summer theatres. More practical, these regionals were supported by grants and tax free contributions. Kanin assembled a first-rate cast headed by Christopher Plummer an Glynis Johns in his play which was then called Peccadillo. Evidently it didn’t please enough people, including its author, and it was laid to rest after being published by Samuel French. Writer Joe Dipietro has unearthed it, dusted it off, set it in New York in 1957 which allowed him to let Derek McLane design a living room that could only exist on a Broadway stage, for they were all the fashion in those so-called “Eisenhower years.. Every drawing room comedy seemed to have millions of dollars worth of antique furniture, art work, carpets, draperies, silver and gold tossed about like confetti, a butler (this comedy has two) and all the rest that pleased the hard core Broadway audiences of the period. Donald Oenslager usually designed them, with “Gowns by Mainbocher,” or “Lady Star’s gowns by Molyneux.”
This production, with its “glorious Manhattan penthouse” is by Derek McLane with costumes by Michael Krass. Its star is the magnificent Renée Fleming, a true prima donna from opera, here making her debut on Broadway. She’s a delight – a beautiful woman with a sense of humor, and the talent to toss a comic line like the best of them. She wears the magnificent Krass creations with style, she earns all her many laughs, and she’s exactly what the summer folk would have loved under the stars or barn roofs of the summer playhouses. I don’t mean to patronize this amiable comedy but standards are lower out there in the country on balmy summer nights, and I believe those audiences would have felt royally treated by this undemanding attempt to explore married and unmarried love by throwing us a couple of “peccadillos” (innocent love affairs of little or no major impact).
Douglas Sills, as Ms. Fleming’s husband (a major maestro, also in opera), is a worthy adversary and their scenes together had me thinking “Hmmm. Wouldn’t they be fun in Molnar’s The Guardsman, the theme of which is not terribly unlike the one in Living on Love?”
Jerry O’Connell contributes goofy innocence to the farcical quartet, and it is completed by Anna Chlumsky who tries to keep up by racing through her lines to the point where she is almost unintelligible. The two butlers are very helpful in setting the tone for the sort of madcap madness that enlivened such early films as My Man Godfrey and It Happened One Night.
If you think of the Longacre Theatre as a converted barn, if you adorn yourself with light summer clothing, you’ll have a laugh or two at this pleasant farce. You’ll also enjoy discovering the surprisingly comic gifts of Renée Fleming and be happily reminded that Douglas Sills was the best thing about the musical The Scarlet Pimpernel. He’s done lots of regional work plus his share of touring since then, but it’s good to have him back on Broadway, making like the Lunts with the gorgeous Ms. Fleming. The Lunts themselves managed to get decent runs out of flimsy material (O Mistress Mine, The Guardsman, I Know My Love) so we’ll have to wait and see if Fleming and Sills can accomplish that with this undemanding romp in these more cynical, expensive times. Not likely, and we wish them well, for they’ve given it their all, and they alone are worth watching.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.
Living on Love closes on Sunday, May 3, 2015 at the Longacre Theatre-220 West 48th Street, in New York City. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, or (800) 447-7400, or purchase them online.