‘Good Night, Oscar’ Sean Hayes in a Marvelous Must-See
It is not that Sean Hayes looks like Oscar Levant (he is taller), or speaks like Levant (not really), or accurately displays Levant’s neurotic ticks and eye blinks (he ticks away), or imitates his posture (he slumps, cutting off 2 inches of his own height). What Hayes does nail is Levant’s pacing, deadpan delivery, comedic sentience and his self-effacing, desperate, sorrowful heart. And it is these latter Levantesque authenticities that Hayes so integrates into his being that when he shines them forth, we believe and follow Hayes wherever he takes us during the brilliant, imminently clever Good Night, Oscar, currently running at the Belasco Theatre with no intermission.
With a well-honed, drop-dead gorgeous book by Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife), and superb production values (Rachel Hauck-scenic design), (Emilio Sosa-costume design), (Carolina Ortiz Herrera & Ben Stanton-lighting design), (Andre Pluess-sound design), and J. Jared Janas for hair & wig design, director Lisa Peterson’s vision brings us back to 1958 in NBC Studios’ inner sanctum, where the backstage drama is more incredible than what happens on live camera. Of course, by the time Hayes’ Levant appears live on The Tonight Show, we, Parr (Ben Rappaport), June Levant (Emily Bergl), Alvin Finney (Marchánt Davis) and head of NBC Bob Sarnoff (Peter Grosz), have lived two lifetimes fearing the worst. After all, this is live television with no splicing tape or editing. Whatever happens is. And that makes the tension and thrill of this production that duplicates the fear of “live,” (just like on Broadway, but with no extended rehearsals), just smashing.
Doug Wright acutely, craftily ups the ante of danger in the 80% probability that Levant will make a mess of things. Perhaps, he won’t make it to the studios, just like the time he left an audience of three thousand waiting in fancy dress to hear him play the piano, concert style, which was popular in those days. Then, he let them wait and never showed up.
Levant is noted for his version of the stellar George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Parr and the TV audience expect Levant to play it, but of late, he is hesitant and may refuse and walk off the set. So Levant might be on time but blow-up his appearance, as he has done before, saying the extraordinary and surprising, if asked to comment on religion, politics or sex. Furthermore, he is plagued by the spirit of Gershwin and has reveries of the past where, at times, he makes no sense. So much can go wrong, like Murphy’s Law states: “If something can go wrong, it will.” With Levant this has become a truism with scheduled bookings and appearances.
As Grosz’s apoplectic Sarnoff and Rappaport’s reasoned Parr go head to head about the high-risks they are taking because they cannot fail during “sweeps week,” we discover that recently, Levant is completely unreliable and “out there.” Sarnoff refers to him as a “freak.” On the other hand Parr has specifically chosen Levant because he needs his new Burbank show to be a success. Levant always delivers because Parr knows his close friend and can set him up for the best one-liners and witticisms in the business.
With Levant, Jack hopes to compete his way into prime time with a low budget and the talk show format he has perfected. It is a difficult task because he is on every evening, is rather high-brow, and the network underestimates him. However, Rappaport’s Parr believes Levant is a “true original,” who “treats chit chat with all the daring, all the danger of a high-wire act.” Parr knows that he will score with Levant because his unexpected brilliance lands his one liners all the time. Jack will start the engine, and Levant will speed off with the cues for a perfect show, nose diving into space and leveling off every time. He only needs to show up and get in make-up. Wright has created the set up for anticipation so that when Levant arrives, if he does, we are ready for his prime time antics, which happen behind the cameras.
That Parr doesn’t convince Sarnoff to calm down remains a problem. Sarnoff tells Parr he has booked “chica chica boom boom” Spanish musician and band leader Xavier Cugat as Levant’s replacement. He will save the day if Levant stiffs The Tonight Show, like he stiffed The Eddie Fisher Show the week before. In other words, as Levant keeps the studio waiting, the greater the likelihood that Levant’s career is down the toilet, along with the bad will that Parr has contributed making his goal to be in prime time a pipe-dream.
The issues appear to be settled when June Levant, Oscar’s wife, sweeps through the doors in her period piece, flowery outfit looking chic and composed. Parr is relieved until June tells him that she committed Oscar, and he’s in an asylum because she finally had enough. Parr becomes as apoplectic as Sarnoff and the rest of the play spins out of control, is brought back into control, then goes up into the high-wire act Parr wished for, after Levant shows up and fills everyone with expectation and sometime dread that he will blunder irreparably and destroy all they’ve planned.
To add to the tension, right before Levant goes on the air, he downs a bottle of Demerol and seems comatose. The saving grace is that Levant is a drug addict and his body is accustomed to so many drugs of his choosing, he has to take a bottle of it to stop his hand from shaking. (I reminded you of that, if you question how taking that many pills and functioning is possible. Think functioning alcoholic.)
Who is this drug addict? Who is Jack Parr? In what century are we? One of the salient take-a ways of Good Night, Oscar is its reverential nod to the Golden Age of Television, when culture, wit, superior comedy shows and superb programs (I Love Lucy, Playhouse 90, Your Show of Shows, What’s My Line, etc.), and actual bona fide news graced the air waves. Jack Parr was one of the first hosts of The Tonight Show franchise, which has lasted to this day and has been duplicated many times over in other shows on other channels.
Then, Parr made individuals famous during his five-year stint. One of his frequent guests was comedic concert pianist and Hollywood celebrity Oscar Levant. Thanks to Doug Wright’s incredible, stylized portrayal of Levant, and Sean Hayes’ remarkable ability to don the ethos of the exceptional pianist and tortured artist, we understand his emotional underpinnings. And we empathize with the psychological whirlwinds captivating Hayes’ Levant. Figuratively haunted by George Gershwin’s shadow, Levant glorifies in and also regrets riding Gershwin’s coattails to celebrity. Wright fancifully manifests this haunting by materializing Gershwin, who cajoles, persuades and torments Hayes’ Levant with remembrances of his greatness and serene notes of “Rhapsody in Blue.” Davis’ Alvin tells Parr assistant Max (Alex Wyse) that these babblings are auditory and visual hallucinations.Max should just “go with it.”
After June Levant and Parr tell Hayes’ Levant he must play, that the concert grand is waiting, Levant goes head to head with Gershwin’s ghost. Portrayed by John Zdrojeski, we note Gershwin’s arrogance and dapper, mordant, ghostly looks. However materially insubstantial he is, to Levant, the only one who sees him, he is beautiful and elegant. We understand that compared to Gershwin, Levant is a midget in looks and talent (in his own flawed estimation). Levant has undermined himself becoming Gershwin’s fawning adherent. Thus, eventually Levant obeys his hallucinations, as the Gershwin ghost compels him. Will Hayes’ Levant be able to play anything with arthritic hands and twenty-five concentrated doses of Demerol in pill form churning around in his stomach?
There is no spoiler alert. How Levant, his body hungering for drugs, manages to manipulate Parr assistant Max and his own nurse assistant Alvin to get what he wants is frightening, funny and ironic. Wright employs Max and Alvin as devices to reveal Levant’s backstory and acquaint the audience with his former grandiloquence, while we take in his deteriorating condition. Levant, Judy Garland and other celebrities shared the same fate with the pills and drugs that the studio doctors offered. Ironically, the tragedy of Oscar Levant and his glory and folly, which Hayes portrays with perfection, has great currency for our time.
Though Levant’s story is a throwback to that crueler, exploitive time of the studios, where the industry ground up artists in its maw and left them at the side of the road to deal with their own damage, we see the effects of big pharma today, expanding their client base beyond celebrities to the US public. Additionally, we note that corporations have become even more insidious than the Hollywood studio system as exploiters of writers and other artists. Good Night, Oscar is vital in showing how the then parallels the now.
Wright, Peterson and importantly, Hayes, elucidate how artists were encouraged to destroy themselves gradually for the sake of their “careers.” That Parr and June Levant are similar in their persuasions, pushing Oscar to “entertain,” is answered by the fact that Oscar adores being in front of an audience, even if it’s only for the four hours he has been “sprung” from the asylum. However, his self-harm becomes irrevocable as celebrity self-destruction through addictions to drugs and alcohol, unless redeemed is irrevocable in our time as well.
Wright’s play is an encomium to Levant’s genius, his humanity and his artistry, beautifully shepherded by Peterson and the creatives who convey her vision. And Sean Hayes’ performance is one for the ages.
There are gaps in this review for the sake of surprising the reader. Most assuredly, Good Night, Oscar is a must-see. You should go a few times to appreciate the wit, humor and spot-on performances, all of which are superb. Sean Hayes is especially poignant and authentic. For tickets and times go to their website https://goodnightoscar.com/