It’s 1958, and host Jack Paar has brought his Tonight Show to Los Angeles at the behest of NBC President Bob Sarnoff to conduct a simple test: can a live TV talk show be successfully produced from the West Coast? Paar’s not sure his quirky style of show can thrive away from its eclectic New York home base, but Sarnoff wants the potential ratings that come from easy access to Hollywood stars.
Stretching the definition of “star,” Paar does Hollywood his way, and his first guest for the LA tryout is one of his favorites: celebrated pianist, wit, character actor and frequent panelist Oscar Levant (played by bona fide TV star, Tony nominee and podcast favorite Sean Hayes). The only wrinkle? Levant is currently an inpatient in the mental ward at Cedar Sinai.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright’s (I Am My Own Wife, War Paint, Grey Gardens, among others) fast paced, tightly constructed 100-minute wonder, Good Night, Oscar, shows us not only what happens, but also provides a fresh take on an old story: the tale of the unhappy clown.
Oscar Levant is not exactly a familiar character today. A co-star to 20th century movie icons like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, and best friend and musical acolyte to George Gershwin (of whom he was a truly virtuosic interpreter), in his prime, Levant was perhaps most famous for his mordant wit on radio panel shows and later TV. Some of his barbs still carry their sting: “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin” … “Debbie Reynolds is as wistful as an iron foundry”… “Every morning, I brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”
But, in addition to his genius at the piano and his clever repartee, Levant made no secret of his struggles with mental illness (at a time when few would even discuss the subject, let alone admit to suffering from it). Sean Hayes’ performance as Levant is, frankly, astounding. He absolutely embodies not merely Levant’s shambolic demeanor, but also the late-career tics, twitches and tremors that his idiosyncratic TV appearances bared.
But beyond this master-class in mimicry, Hayes depicts a soul in torment. His demons (insecurity, drug addiction, depression and schizophrenia) form a trap for which Levant’s quips and musical talent are feeble distractions. At his core, there lays an overwhelming sense of missed opportunity. As he says in the play, “I forgot to live my life, so that I could be a footnote in somebody else’s.”
This makes the culmination of the play—Hayes’ jaw-dropping performance of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”—truly heartbreaking: one part sheer genius and one part despair at his inability to escape Gershwin’s shadow and his own failed promise, now cloaked in wisecracks and cigarette smoke.
As great as Hayes’ performance is, this is by no means a one-man show. The supporting cast is top-notch, and filled with Broadway and off-Broadway vets who deliver Wright’s by turns witty, then searing dialog with just the right amount of brio or venom, as the lines require.
Emily Bergl is particularly fine as Levant’s long-suffering wife June, who has her own reasons for enabling Levant’s ill-advised TV appearance. Ben Rappaport, as Jack Paar, effortlessly portrays Paar’s charisma and charm. And Ethan Slater (Broadway’s “SpongeBob”) is a natural comedian who lands each of the many laughs the script gives him.
Deftly directed by Lisa Patterson and with spot-on set design by Rachel Hauck (especially the Paar studio set, where the quilted backdrop evokes both soundproofing of a television sound stage and the padded walls of a mental hospital), Good Night, Oscar has already extended its Goodman run by an additional week. See it before it transfers to Broadway.
Good Night, Oscar runs through April 24 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets ($25 – $112) can be purchased at www.goodmantheatre/oscar. The show runs 1 hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission. For more information on this and other productions, see theatreinchicago.com.
Guest reviewer Doug Mose is glad to be back seeing live Chicago theater and studiously practicing his piano.
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