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Theatre in Review: Good Night, Oscar (Belasco Theatre)

Alex Wyse, Sean Hayes. Photo: Joan Marcus

Oscar Levant may have been one of show business' greatest schlubs -- at the Belasco, his own wife calls him "Eeyore in a cheap suit" -- but Goodnight, Oscar is as sleekly tailored a vehicle as any actor could wish. That would be Sean Hayes, exercising his character actor muscles and prowess at the piano in Doug Wright's new drama about the multi-hyphenate and walking nervous breakdown whose search-and-destroy zingers, delivered on The Tonight Show during Jack Paar's reign as host, titillated Eisenhower-era television audiences.

Indeed, the largely forgotten Levant is a rich dramatic subject. A maverick cultural figure -- concert pianist, friend of George Gershwin, pop composer, film scorer, pal to the stars in MGM musicals, and memoirist -- he also flourished in the years when talk shows coveted guests who, rather than hawking books and films, were expert in the art of conversation. That he was a mental case and connoisseur of psychotropic drugs only added to his fascination. Turning up on air obviously medicated, slumping in his chair, and sucking on a cigarette, he was bad attitude personified. "What do you do for exercise?" Paar once asked. "I stumble, then fall into a coma," he replied.

Hayes, who resembles Levant not at all, achieves a remarkable transformation; hunched over, scowling like he swallowed a dill pickle, kvetching in a voice reminiscent of a sea lion in distress, he clearly would, given half a chance, jump out of his own skin. Served a cup of coffee, he enacts an elaborate OCD ritual, arranging the cream and sugar just so and stirring exactly four times clockwise and four times counterclockwise. (Such behavior, he insists, could have averted the San Francisco earthquake and Hindenburg disaster.) When it comes to cutting remarks, he spares no one, least of all himself. Commenting on his descent from the concert stage to the movies, he says, "I was gonna be Shostakovich! What'd I wind up instead? A lousy plot device." Defending himself to an outraged network executive who wants television to be all sweetness and light, he snaps, "I'm controversial! People dislike me or they hate me."

In Wright's telling, Levant, confined to a mental ward, has nevertheless gotten himself booked for an appearance with Paar. Showing up late, accompanied by a reluctant hospital orderly toting a black bag packed with pills, he ruffles plenty of feathers. (He is technically on the lam from the asylum, having fraudulently obtained a four-hour pass to attend a daughter's graduation.) Between complaints, he slips into fugue states in which he argues, furiously, with Gershwin, whom he both hero-worshipped and resented. The latter has been dead for two decades but still their love/hate relationship rages on. "Oh, God," Levant muses. "You're my fantasy. I'm the one making your lines..."

Goodnight, Oscar turns on the question of whether Levant can make it through the broadcast without unraveling in front of millions of viewers; clearly, it will be a near thing. Almost physically ill with self-loathing and frustrated ambitions, his speech slurred by Demerol, his real addiction is to the one-liners that ease his psychic pain. On camera, baited by Paar, he launches one calculated offense after another. Commenting on Marilyn Monroe converting to Judaism for her husband Arthur Miller, he says, "Now that she's kosher, he can eat her!"

Because Hayes is also a concert-level pianist, the play climaxes with Levant, against his will, performing a significant section of his loved/loathed Rhapsody in Blue. The sequence is pure musical psychodrama: He pauses, his trembling hands over the keyboard, raising fears that he is about to fall off some psychic cliff. Tearing into one rapid-fire passage after another, he looks behind himself, as if he expects the disapproving shade of Gershwin to appear out of thin air. As the music builds, torrents of fury are expended on the keyboard. It's a fine climax to a big, bold, swing-for-the-rafters performance and it goes far beyond anything New York has seen Hayes do so far.

To be sure, Wright's script isn't an elegant piece of construction. He clumsily drops an enormous chunk of exposition into the first act, pausing the action to bring us up to speed on Levant's history. There's plenty of heavy irony, as when executive Bob Sarnoff (son of David, founder of NBC), decrying the vulgarization of the medium, says, "Remarks like that...lurid sob stories, tabloid disclosures, segments designed to provoke, to titillate...that's not what television is for." And the freedom-of-speech arguments given to Paar aren't especially strong. "If television's ever gonna matter, we gotta use it to some real purpose to slaughter a few sacred cows!" he says, evidently not foreseeing The Jerry Springer Show, Fox News, and the umpteenth season of The Bachelor.

Still, this drama of a tormented nonconformist crackles with fury and wit. Rather than deny the charge of being "a card-carrying lunatic," Levant roars, "I say it about myself before they can! I make 'em laugh, but I have the last one." It's a way of coping that comes with a terrible price tag.

Director Lisa Peterson has assembled an excellent supporting cast beginning with Emily Bergl as June, Levant's wife and caretaker, who handles him with a mixture of love and unsettling objectivity. Paar is something of a cipher -- the script doesn't stop to consider whether he is exploiting Levant for ratings gold -- but Ben Rappaport captures the host's easy way with his audience. Peter Grosz frets effectively as Sarnoff, poised to substitute Xavier Cugat in the guest lineup at a moment's notice. Alex Wyse is the production assistant with a thing for Jayne Mansfield. Marchánt Davis pushes back strongly as the no-nonsense orderly. John Zdrojeski is a dapper, dismissive Gershwin, a ghost who can never be exorcised.

The play's themes are neatly embodied in Rachel Hauck's scenic design, which locates two dressing rooms and a television studio (complete with period lighting units) inside a surround suggestive of a padded cell. The lighting, by Carolina Ortiz Herrera and Ben Stanton, ranges from warm mid-twentieth-century interior looks to more blatantly theatrical effects for Gershwin's appearances and Levant's piano solo. Emilio Sosa's period-accurate costumes include a knockout of a matching dress and coat for June. André Pluess' sound design includes a nightmare version of Rhapsody in Blue that haunts Levant's imagination.

A throwback to an earlier Broadway of star vehicles, Goodnight, Oscar is an entertaining slice of social history buoyed by a sizzling lead performance. A fascinating American figure is given his due. And a leading man offers a performance that is one for the books. It's a satisfying evening all around. --David Barbour

(1 May 2023)

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