Wikipedia calls Oscar Levant (1906-1972) “an eccentric, witty, neurotic, grouchy, melancholic and original character of film, radio and popular and light classical music.” He was a frequent purveyor of the work of George Gershwin with whom he had a lopsided friendship, and was himself a composer and songwriter. Levant pillaged the challenging parts of his life – his increasing dependence on drugs and alcohol, psychotic breaks and subsequent treatment – for material that defined a mordant wit. At a time when those subjects were taboo, he was unique. In a line from the film Humoresque, the artist described the essence of being himself: “It isn’t what you are, it’s what you don’t become that hurts.” An inferiority complex swallowed him alive.
John Zdrojeski (George Gershwin), Sean Hays (Oscar Levant)
Goodnight takes place at the NBC studios in 1958 on the eve of The Jack Paar Show’s west coast premiere. Paar (Ben Rappaport) and Levant (Sean Hayes) were friends. The host’s appreciation of wit, surety of public pique i.e. attention, and awareness that to Levant, an audience was therapeutic, made him insist on the guest, despite obvious risks. “I prefer it to living,” Levant said about appearing on television.
Network executive Bob Sarnoff (Peter Grosz), armed with a plethora of forbidden subjects for the guest, is against his appearance. He calls the artist “too rarefied” and implies he’s also too Jewish. At the last minute Paar is told by a determined June Levant (Emily Bergl) that her husband will show up on a four hour pass from the mental ward where she’s had him committed. “The men in white coats shot him up with sodium pentothal which he quite likes,” she says. Paar keeps the news to himself. Intern Max Weinbaum, an oft employed cliché character (Alex Wyse-well played), is sworn to secrecy.
The wobbly Oscar arrives with his “keeper,” Alvin (Marchant Davis- excellent), is dressed by June, argues with Sarnoff – “A polite comedian is an oxymoron,” the guest declares – and manages to secretly finagle more meds. By the time he’s on camera, the ordinarily loose cannon is off the charts. Paar introduces Levant with the unfunny barbed : “To put it mildly, he is as nervous as he is clever. For every pearl that goes out of his mouth, a pill goes in.”
Marchant Davis (Alvin), Sean Hayes (Oscar Levant)
The host leads his guest to address every forbidden subject. There’s always some truth to Levant’s eminently quotable, entertaining, dark wit. Half the reason an invitation was extended however, was his popularity as a musician. Literally haunted by Gershwin (John Zdrojeski) -“I’m trapped in a deeply neurotic love affair with your music,” he tells an hallucination – he refuses. June offers a bribe.
Doug Wright, author among other things of the brilliant I Am My Own Wife, might offer more background on, for example, the protagonist’s incarceration or prior home life. Much time is taken up by performance of the jazz concerto. It’s interesting to note that Wright’s father was bipolar which drew him to the piece.
The role of Oscar Levant should have been given to a dramatic actor, not television’s lightly comedic Sean Hayes. Granted, Hayes plays piano, Rhapsody in Blue, in fact, as few actors could, but loss of plausibility up to that late segment hurts the play. Audience periodically laughs yet sympathy for Levant or June is difficult to muster. Hayes doesn’t have the gravitas to project sufficient bitterness, anger, or despair. Nor does it help that he resembles Levant not at all.
The rest of the cast is solid.
Emily Bergl (June Levant), Sean Hayes (Oscar Levant)
Director Lisa Peterson has given her lead so many twitches it’s a wonder anyone thinks him able to function. A YouTube excerpt from the Paar interview finds him almost without; one where he guests on What’s My Line? observes a great many facial ticks, but smooth delivery of the constant cigarette and no body quakes. How much is documented and how much presumed? Exaggeration here makes the “hero” a caricature while everyone around him, to varying degrees, is credible. Obsessive rituals, an exception, add to characterization.
Rachel Hauk’s set design and Emilio Sosa’s costumes both feel accurate.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Ben Rappaport (Jack Paar), Sean Hayes (Oscar Levant)
Goodnight, Oscar by Doug Wright
Directed by Lisa Peterson
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