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Kathleen Marshall's Guide to Comedy

Date: Apr 13, 2015
How the renowned director brings laughs to Living on Love


"All good screwball comedy depends on a level of danger."

So says Kathleen Marshall, and she should know. She directed hellzapoppin Broadway shows like Nice Work If You Can Get It, Anything Goes, and Wonderful Town, which were all distinguished by their zany charm.

Marshall is back in the farce game with the Broadway premiere of Living on Love, now at the Longacre Theatre. Written by Joe DiPietro (Memphis, Nice Work…) and adapted from Garson Kanin's comedy Peccadillo, the play follows Raquel and Vito De Angelis, a world famous opera diva and classical conductor who drive each other to Wagnerian fits of jealousy.

Case in point: Raquel (played by opera legend Renée Fleming) nearly pops a blood vessel when she discovers that Vito (Douglas Sill) has hired a pretty young editor to ghost write his memoir. To retaliate, she hires a studly scribe of her own, and soon enough, husband and wife are using their potential new lovers to make each other seethe. They keep ratcheting up the flirtation until clothes are flying, furniture is breaking, and doors are getting slammed left and right.

It's up to Marshall to make sure this madness is funny. And for her, that means including a certain amount of danger. "For any of this to work, you have to believe that the stakes are real," she says. "You have to care about the characters and believe in them so that when it spins off into something a little bit absurd or farcical, you're willing to go with them."


In other words, we need to understand why Vito and Raquel got married in the first place, or we'll never care if their marriage falls apart.

To that end, Marshall has particularly worked with Fleming and Sills on the moments they're alone. There's an especially telling scene near the beginning of the play, after the young folks have scampered away, when Raquel and Vito let down their guards. They talk about everyday things like touring schedules and vacation souvenirs, and they touch each other with the absentminded tenderness of people who have loved each other for decades.

"That's one of my favorite scenes," the director says. "Even though they're volatile and grandiose, we also need Vito and Raquel to be real people. So what is their private persona versus their public persona? Even if it's just an audience of one, they may behave differently around someone else than they do with each other."

Of course, not all the "human moments" were so carefully planned. There's a major subplot, for instance, about the couple's large collection of snow globes that wasn't in DiPietro's first draft.

"It got added gradually," Marshall recalls, referring to the play's world premiere last summer at Williamstown Theatre Festival. "At first, the conversation about snow globes was just there to cover a costume change for Renée. Then we started inserting it more and more into the play, and now Joe has written this beautiful speech at the beginning when they talk about snow globes and say, 'Most of the time they sit there still and stagnant, but shake it up a bit and [there's] sudden magic. And she says, 'A bit like us, I suppose.'"

Marshall continues, "Their marriage is kind of stagnant and maybe tipping over into something more dangerous than that. And they shake it up a bit. And in the process of shaking it up, they not only do these funny, screwball things. They find each other again."


Mark Blankenship
is the editor-in-chief of TDF Stages

Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: Renée Fleming, Jerry O'Connell, and Douglas Sills