Sean Hayes as Oscar Levant in “Good Night, Oscar,” photo by Joan Marcus
by Billy McEntee
There’s a Steinway & Sons on 43rd and Sixth, but just a block north, the Belasco Theater’s piano has been given more life than perhaps any in that storefront will ever see.
That’s because in the climactic moments of Doug Wright’s sometimes thin but undoubtedly star-solidifying new play, Good Night, Oscar, Sean Hayes sets the instrument ablaze as he plays Gershwin with all the fervor of a man on, well, more pills than we can count.
Hayes returns to Broadway in an exquisite, touching, and formidable portrait of the twentieth century pianist Oscar Levant, a tortured man who kept his own concertos buried while playing the bejesus out of others’. Levant is at war with themself, and wit is his sword and armor. He jokes that Beethoven may have been deaf, but he suffers from wisecracks.
Wright traces a few tense hours on one evening in Levant’s twilight years. He is due to be interviewed on The Tonight Show, but he’s currently in a medical facility. His wife has concocted a plan to release him for a few hours, claiming he will see his daughter’s graduation. As Levant’s wife June, Emily Bergl is both grounded while offering a performance that highlights the vitality and spark that beguiled her husband. When network executives worry about Levant’s instability and pill-popping addiction, she chastises that you don’t invite a zebra on air and then “bitch about its stripes.” Wright does Levant’s humor justice, but more importantly it lays bare the pathos of a particular man with a queer sensibility boxed in on a network show, and a culture at large, that expects “family values” over individuality or flair.
Lisa Peterson’s production, bolstered by Rachel Huack’s late 50’s and pitch-perfect set, is as tight as Wrights script, which lets Levant slip into fever dreams without loosening the story’s grip. In those frenzies, John Zdrojeski appears as a debonair, statuesque Gershwin to taunt and foil Hayes’ schlubby and withering Levant. Ultimately, though, the role feels unnecessary: we feel the ghost of another great haunting Levant’s legacy; we don’t need to see him.
As a bumbling film buff and NBC production assistant, Alex Wyse gives the most memorable supporting performance, punctuating his scenes with a humorously terse laugh and opening and closing doors with the bow-tying finesse of a farce. Ben Rappaport, as Tonight Show host Jack Paar, is charming and plays off Hayes well in their eventual and volcanic on-air interview that sets NBC atwitter. Peter Grosz is stiff as the network president, Bob Sarnoff, and is only given filler monologues about the danger of Levant’s irreverent jokes (including a bar burner about Marilyn Monroe converting to Judaism so her husband, Arthur Miller, could eat her).
In Wrights script, Bob and Levant’s doctor (Marchánt Davis) are the least developed, not that it matters much: all other performers are planets revolving around Hayes’ sun. He is incomparable, acicular as barbed wire in his humor and flooring when he shows his bravery, which is to say the wounded soul beneath the proud man.