GOOD NIGHT, OSCAR: A NIGHT IN THE 1950s
“Good Night, Oscar”, an economically composed and effectively directed one-act play about Oscar Levant, comedian/ pianist most popular in the 1950s, is a very old-fashioned play. And I mean that in the nicest way, really. It’s the kind of play that used to populate Broadway houses regularly through the 1930s-1960s: straightforward narratives, well-paced direction and solid acting; not watershed moments in theater, but gratifying, entertaining evenings of theater-going.
Sean Hayes, himself trained as a concert pianist, and best known for his Emmy-award winning portrayal as Jack on the sitcom “Will and Grace” is perfect for the part, The indelible character he created for that long-running comedy series was an act; Jack is not his real persona. In taking on the role of the acerbic and psychologically challenged Levant, he demonstrates astounding technique (all the quirky facial and vocal mannerisms of the real Levant) and a wide dramatic and comedic range.
The 1:40 minute play takes place in 1958 at NBC Television Studios in Burbank, CA. Bob Sarnoff, the domineering NBC president, has moved his “Tonight Show” with star host, Jack Paar, from New York to LA. The show is live, and Parr wants to feature Levant on his first West Coast broadcast. Sarnoff is troubled by the prospect of what provocative comments (about politics, religion or sex - all the things one didn't talk about, let alone on live TV) Levant will make. The situation gets more fraught when Sarnoff and Parr learn that Levant’s wife had pulled strings to get her husband released for 3 hours from a mental hospital to do the show.
Playwright Doug Wright, who won a Tony and a Pulitzer for “I Am My Own Wife” and authored books of the musicals “Warpaint” and “Grey Gardens”, knows well neurotic characters on the edge and surviving their own personalities. The situation he creates in “Good Night, Oscar” is not only an incisive character study of a complicated, brilliant personality, but also a sophisticated look at how that personality navigated marriage, business relationships, celebrity and a popular culture for which he was way ahead of his time. All the while,Levant is obsessed with an inferiority complex about his musical skills compared to his muse George Gershwin; with all the meds Levant is on he hallucinates confrontations with him.
Most fascinating about “Good Night, Oscar” is how it covers all that psychological, emotional and cultural turf without pedantry. Credit goes to director Lisa Peterson who doesn’t let the play go down metaphoric rabbit holes. Peterson brings out the best in a stellar supporting cast: Peter Grosz makes Sarnoff real; Ben Rappaport finds his best footing in the on-air interview sequence with Levant; Emily Bergl is superb as Levant’s wife who knows him warts and all and still loves him for it; Marchant David as Levant’s nurse is spot-on in combining duty to and frustration with Levant; and John Zdrojeski handles a difficult role as the ghost of George Gershwin deftly.
Set design by Rachel Hack (“Hadestown”) and costumes by Emilio Sosa (the current “Sweeney Todd”) are 1950s authentic - without cliche.
Levant overcomes a neurotic seizure to perform Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” to conclude his appearance on Parr’s show. Hayes executes the crowd-pleasing classic with virtuoso. “Good Night, Oscar” is a solid evening of entertainment spent with a unique American personality in a time and place of American culture now a long, long time ago.