A multi-hyphenate of the 20th century, long before the term existed, Pittsburgh-born, NYC-trained, and Hollywood-based actor and comedian, concert pianist and composer, TV talk show host and frequent guest Oscar Levant (1906-72), remembered by fans for his acerbic and risqué witticisms, prodigious contributions to music (including the standard “Blame It on My Youth”), and candid struggles with mental health and prescription drug addiction, is the subject of Good Night, Oscar, a new play by Doug Wright and Lisa Peterson, making its Broadway debut at the Belasco Theatre.
Set in the NBC Studios in Burbank, CA, during the Golden Age of television in 1958, the fictionalized real-life story revolves around a problematic appearance of Levant, Jack Paar’s controversial friend and favorite, on a live national broadcast of his #1-rated late-night program The Tonight Show, for the debut telecast of its temporary transfer from New York to the West Coast. The stakes are high, Oscar is late, and the network president Bob Sarnoff – already concerned about the likelihood of Levant making his signature irrepressible comments on the off-limit topics of politics, religion, and sex – is ready to replace him with Xavier Cugat, when Oscar’s wife June arrives with some news for Paar, explaining why he’s not yet there.
So begins a journey into the brilliant but unstable mind, and its physical manifestations, of Oscar Levant (famously quoted as saying, “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity; I have erased this line”), who had spent the past several months committed by June to a psychiatric institution and would need to be picked up at the facility, accompanied by Alvin Finney, an orderly from the ward, on the four-hour pass she had deceitfully arranged (convincing the doctors he would be attending a family event, not appearing on TV), positing that it would help him because he needs an audience.
Through conversations with Max Weinbaum, Sarnoff’s starstruck assistant (and nephew – thereby calling out the common practice of nepotism), we hear the highlights of Levant’s career; through Oscar’s auditory and visual hallucinations of the more illustrious and debonaire George Gershwin (1898-1937), whom he had befriended in Hollywood, we understand his frustration, inferiority complex, and self-deprecating humor; and through his interactions with June and Paar, we see another fine line, between entertainment and exploitation, as they both benefit (she in terms of income and status; he in the show’s ratings and his own stardom) – as, by extension, does the present bio-play dramedy.
Under Peterson’s direction, Sean Hayes (best known for his Emmy-winning role of Jack McFarland on the TV sit-com Will & Grace) stars as Oscar, in a characterization that wavers between wise-cracking, depressive, and scenery-chewing, defined by the symptoms of OCD and schizophrenia, with uncontrollable routines of repeated behavior, incessantly squinting eyes, facial tics, twitching and shaking, a slouching posture, a heavy (and overly) gravelly voice, smoking and pill-popping, and a fit of rolling around on the floor (a portrayal you can compare with extant footage of Oscar Levant’s 1961 guest appearance with Jack Paar on The Tonight Show).
He also performs an impassioned rendition of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” on a Steinway grand piano (music supervision by Chris Fenwick), without the benefit of sheet music – one of the highlights of Hayes’ performance and the show – after much prodding of Levant, who didn’t want to play, by June and Jack, triggering another of the character’s aforementioned hallucinations (an extended sequence, oddly occurring after he was already introduced to the live audience by Paar and the cameras cut to him).
The fine supporting cast features Ben Rappaport as Jack Paar, who delivers a spot-on depiction of the host’s posture, mannerisms, and attitude in his show with Oscar (another highlight of the Broadway production); Emily Bergl as a stern, maternal, and controlling June Levant, who brings her husband’s clothes to the studio, helps him dress, and promises she’ll bring him back home if he plays the requested piano piece on the show; Peter Grosz as an irate Sarnoff, who explodes when Paar steers his conversation with Oscar to the forbidden topics and complaints from the home audience immediately start pouring in; Alex Wyse, who captures the young, nerdy, and impressionable quality of Max and is easily convinced to retrieve the pills Levant craves; Marchánt Davis as Alvin, who keeps watch over Oscar, tries his best to keep his medications away from him, and handles the medical emergency when he gets them; and John Zdrojeski as the apparition of the suave Gershwin, who is at times condescending and at times supportive of his friend.
An outstanding artistic design recreates the style of the mid-century, with authentic period costumes by Emilio Sosa and wigs, hair, and make-up by J. Jared Janas that distinguish between the rumpled look of Levant and the refined attire of the others, and an upscale scenic design by Rachel Hauck that shifts easily from Paar’s NBC office to the show’s greenroom to its on-air set and white walls that resemble the padded cells of a mental healthcare facility. In keeping with the vintage stylings are voice-overs by Thomas Michael Hammond, Stephanie Janssen, and Max Roll, with sound by Andre Pluess, and lighting by Ben Stanton and Carolina Ortiz Herrera enhances the moods and signals the hallucinations in Oscar’s mind.
Though set in the middle of the 20th century, Good Night, Oscar raises some relevant ongoing issues about censorship in the media, oversharing personal tribulations in a public forum, and, most significantly, their exploitation for the purpose of entertainment and the gain of others.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, without intermission.
Good Night, Oscar plays through Sunday, August 27, 2023, at the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $94-318, including fees), go online. Masks are no longer required but are recommended.