In 2012, writer Joe DiPietro and director Kathleen Marshall fashioned a new Gershwin pastiche for Broadway, “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” from the bones of “Oh, Kay!,” a faded 1920s musical with a screwball plot. Now, DiPietro and Marshall are reimagining a second overlooked comedy by another theatrical leading light. Their adaptation of Garson Kanin’s 1985 play, “Peccadillo,” retitled “Living on Love,” premieres at the Williamstown Theatre Festival beginning on July 16, starring celebrated opera soprano Renée Fleming and film and TV actors Justin Long and Anna Chlumsky (“Veep”). A show business multi-hyphenate, Kanin wrote plays (“Born Yesterday”), books (“Smash”), and screenplays, sometimes with his wife, actress Ruth Gordon (“Adam’s Rib”). He also directed for both screen and stage, including “Funny Girl” on Broadway.
“Living on Love” centers on a tempestuous Italian maestro and his jealous opera diva wife, who each hire ghostwriters of the opposite sex to pen competing memoirs. The couple become captivated by their attractive young writing consorts while locking swords with each other. We rang up “Memphis” Tony Award-winner DiPietro to talk about his reinvention of Kanin’s all-but-forgotten play.
Q. “Peccadillo” premiered in Florida in 1985 starring Christopher Plummer. But it’s rarely been performed since. How did this project come about?
A. When [Kanin’s] “Born Yesterday” was revived on Broadway [in 2011], I think the Garson K estate and a couple of producers, including Scott Landis, became interested in looking back at some of his other works. I think they felt that there’s some gold to be mined by trying to adapt some of his work. They sent the play to Renée, who liked it and was interested in making her theatrical debut.
Q. What was your initial impression of the play?
A. It’s wildly comic, and there’s some lovely snatches of writing in it. The character of Vito was so theatrical. He was based on Arthur Rubinstein, who was a very over-the-top maestro. He’d apparently be having a conversation and get angry and start throwing food against the wall. [Vito] very much reminded me of some of my older Italian relatives. Their tempers can flare and recede very quickly.
Q. Is this an update or more of a reinvention of Kanin’s original?
A. It takes the bones of what Garson wrote and turns it into something new. The Kanin estate was very generous. They said that the play is something that he had only started, and he never had a chance to really make it work, so do what you have to do with it. I’ll call it a riff on the original.
Q. In what ways were you able to twist the adaptation and make it your own?
A. The original took place in 1985. Both Kathleen and I had the same thought, which was to move the setting to the ’50s. When I think of how people like Leonard Bernstein really influenced the culture, it was in the 1950s when they were at their zenith. So [the characters] could really be people who were in the news all the time. And in the original play, [the character of Raquel] had retired from opera singing sometime after they got married. So she was now his housewife. I wanted to actually make her character much more dynamic and active — by having her still be a famous working opera singer.
Q. So they would be more like true equals.
A. Exactly. Because part of the inspiration were those Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy movies, which Garson Kanin wrote several of. I’m an old-movie buff, and I went back and watched “Adam’s Rib” and “Woman of the Year” and “Pat and Mike.” I really wanted that Hepburn-Tracy dynamic. She really was a strong woman in those movies. She gives as good as she gets.
Q. Comedy can date very quickly. How did you approach adapting the humor so it wouldn’t feel creaky?
A. One thing Kathleen and I tried to do, which we also did in “Nice Work,” was take a period comedy and make the humor sound like dialogue that those people could have said back then. We wanted to stay true to its ’50s milieu but still have enough of a modern twist underneath it for a contemporary audience.
Q. It’s often said that comedy is simply tragedy plus time. What’s the tragic situation here?
A. At the core, it’s very much about a long-term relationship. What do you do when you’ve been married for 30 years and you’ve both been on the road and you sort of look at each other and think, “Maybe I should trade you in for someone younger”? That’s an interesting dilemma. Will they actually go through with it? Also, we were talking at our first read-through about what causes people to develop these huge personalities and have these tempers. I think beneath those things is a fear of losing all of the success you’ve gained.
Q. You have a world-renowned, real-life opera soprano in the show. Will audiences get to hear Ms. Fleming sing?
A. Yes, Renée will sing. But I don’t want to give away what it is she will sing. There’s definitely some music in it, because it’s a play about geniuses who make music and express themselves through music. They love through music and they seduce through music.
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.