Doug Wright’s “Good Night, Oscar” Plays Well on the Broadway Stage

Ben Rappaport and Sean Hayes in Broadway’s Good Night, Oscar. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Broadway Theatre Review: Good Night, Oscar

By Ross

Whip-smart and as sharp as a bent tack, the Goodman Theatre production of Good Night, Oscar, written by Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife; War Paint), has landed on Broadway bathed in a late 1950s vibe that transcends. It’s a fairly strong piece of theatre, etched in the early days of live TV when Jack Paar, perfectly played by Ben Rappaport (Broadway’s Picnic) hosted the “Tonight Show” live from Burbank, California. It’s 1958, and a very special night, as we are continually told by the NBC network executive Bob Sarnoff, played by Peter Grosz (LCT’s A Kid Like Jake), and the stakes are supposedly very high. Yet somewhere in Wright’s dutiful play, the event doesn’t fill the space with the same much-needed energy. It’s well crafted and dutifully formulated, but somehow doesn’t carry the same sharpness as Levant’s tongue. But as a vehicle for Sean Hayes (Broadway’s Promises, Promises), this is the “Will & Grace” star’s spotlight moment on stage, and he grabs hold of it and tickles those keys like the piano virtuoso that he, surprisingly, is. It’s a remarkable performance, whether he emotionally draws you in or not.

I knew very little about Oscar Levant, the prized guest that Paar wants so much, but when I walked into the Belasco Theatre on Broadway, his name really didn’t mean much to me. I was told by my fellow theatre junkie that night that he was a very well-known piano player and talk show regular that cracked wildly inappropriate (for the time) jokes on cue in abundance. One in particular about Marilyn Monroe that hilariously shocked a nation, but I had no idea about his immense talent, his role in “An American in Paris“, his pretty intense connection to Gershwin and his “Rhapsody in Blue”, but more importantly, I was not aware of his mental health diagnosis. This was all news to me, so as Good Night, Oscar rolls forward into the television spotlight, the writing and the man had me intrigued, wondering where this was going to take us, and to what end.

Emily Bergl and Ben Rappaport in Broadway’s Good Night, Oscar. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Oscar Levant was that funny man on the edge. “He’s not only a wit, he’s a wit’s wit. He has truly said some of the cleverest things said in our time“, constantly taking the bait and running with it down a road that made television history, as well as some network executives very anxious. Wright takes that energy and hands it to Jack Paar to bring it forward. It begins a stressful few hours before the scheduled live television event with Paar taking criticism and some vague threats from the NBC executive. The stress resides in what would happen if Levant steps out of line by diving into the dreaded three-topic quicksand. It’s clear that Paar is hoping for just that, but he doesn’t let on. He has no worries, only sensationalistic hopes for the show tonight, that is until Levant’s wife, June shows up instead of her husband. Deftly portrayed by Emily Bergl (Broadway’s The Ferryman), June informs Paar that Oscar has been committed to an ‘insane asylum’ weeks ago, by her for a variety of reasons, but that he shouldn’t worry. Oscar will be there, she tells him. It’s important to him. And to everyone involved. A true original is needed, they acknowledge, including us, but in what shape will he arrive, whisked away on a fake guest pass out of the psychiatric hospital, not to go to his daughter’s graduation, but to appear live on television.

The play engages with Levant, both the man and the myth, through the able-bodied performance of Hayes. It’s an outrageously strong construction, and as played out inside Wright’s construct, the idea bodes well for an electric evening, wondering how Hayes as Levant will master the situation, his schizophrenia, and all those that surround him to keep him ticking and out of trouble. He arrives with a nervous medical aide by the name of Alvin Finney at his side, portrayed dynamically by Marchánt Davis (Broadway’s Ain’t No Mo’), guarding his briefcase full of meds like it is filled with gold. And in a way, it is, in the way Levant keeps pestering him for some pill-popping help to settle his slowly increasing needs we realize its relevancy. There is also the very endearing celebrity-focused studio assistant, Max Weinbaum, played beautifully by Alex Wyse (off-Broadway’s A Commerical Jingle for Regina Comet), who peppers the room and Levant with questions and requests for stories, His hilariously strong turn pulls Levant along reluctantly in a way that no one else seems capable of. Or is it the other way around?

Alex Wyse and Sean Hayes in Broadway’s Good Night, Oscar. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Hayes as Levant does his due diligence, orchestrating all the ticks and foibles of the troubled talented man right down to his shifting body and gravelly voice. It’s an impressive feat, overflowing with the one-liners that made the man iconic and weighed down by the troubling interior voice that never likes to leave him alone. The manners and the antics ring true, wobbling the play in and around moments that are touching, sad, funny, and uncomfortable. All within a moment or two. But the true heart of the emotional slicing comes when he falters in and out of time and space, shifting to the historic interactions with the deceased George Gershwin, handsomely portrayed by John Zdrojeski (PH’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning), that takes us into the heart and soul of this deeply pained man.

Directed with a strong focus on detail and delivery by Lisa Peterson (NYTW’s The Waves), Good Night, Oscar finds its formula in the recreations, thanks to the stellar work of set designer Rachel Hauck (Broadway’s Hadestown) with perfectly formed lighting by Carolina Ortiz Herrera (BAM’s Everything Rises) and Ben Stanton (Broadway’s The Collaboration), a strong sound design by Andre Pluess (Broadway’s The Minutes), and some spectacular costumes designed by Emilio Sosa (Broadway’s Sweeney Todd…). The production sparkles with authenticity and personality, working hard to deliver the unpredictability of Levant jammed into a few moments of reenacted television. Yet something, for me at least, was missing in the end. A reason, perhaps for this unveiling, beyond the obvious. Hayes certainly doesn’t disappoint, but I’m not sure I was drawn into his underbelly, even during the hypnotic hallucination scenes with Zdrojeski’s fine Gershwin.

John Zdrojeski and Sean Hayes in Broadway’s Good Night, Oscar. Photo by Joan Marcus.

All the jokes land in that television appearance, cracking apart the dreaded three-topic triangle with ease, but as the pills are swallowed and the show-must-go-on drum beats loud and strong towards the piano-playing climax, which I must say is terrifically done by Hayes, the energy doesn’t rise up to the occasion. The devilish humor and superb talent of the shocking, straight-shooting, spontaneous Levant slide into the background as my concern for the man’s well-being edged out the rest. Levant, who died in 1972, was obviously a very sharply pointed stick, easily unpacking the joke spontaneously in front of a live audience, yet he was also a deeply troubled man, heavily burdened by mental illness and internalized pain. Hayes’s performance feels somewhat trapped inside the diagnosis, struggling to get out, and until the moment he is finally seated at the piano, that weight feels unduly heavy. Near the end of this play, when Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is played against his will for all the demons that live inside, the energy of the engagement finally plays its part. And we can join with the man, and not just the performance of the man.

To put it mildly, he is as nervous as he is clever, for every pearl that goes out, a pill goes in.” This is what the real Jack Paar said of the man, and in a way, it’s semi-true of the play. Good Night, Oscar is a fine night at the theatre, filled with pain and humor somewhat balanced out with virtuosity at its core. We play our receptive part watching the drama and the comedy unfold as the clock ticks to the end of a commercial break. Hayes will and should be honored for his detailed turn as Levant, but I wish the play had a bit more to offer than the brilliance of a performance and a sentimental unraveling of the difficulties of mental illness in the end. Who knew Hayes could play like that, yet it is only in that moment that we finally get a glimpse of what is at stake in Good Night, Oscar.

Sean Hayes in Broadway’s Good Night, Oscar at the Belasco Theatre.
By Doug Wright. Directed by Lisa Peterson. Photo by Joan Marcus.


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