I’ve been looking forward to seeing Sean Hayes as Oscar Levant in Pulitzer Prize-winner Doug Wright’s new play, Good Night, Oscar, since the Goodman Theatre announced its 2021-2022 schedule. What could possibly be better than having this wonderful comic actor playing the only American male rival to Dorothy Parker? I’m happy to report that the answer is: nothing. The play and the performance are both triumphs, in no small part due to Wright’s creative script and the remarkable direction of Lisa Peterson.
Levant, a brilliant pianist from the first half of the 20th Century as well as an accomplished actor and decadently hilarious talk show guest, was known for being the premier interpreter of George Gershwin, with whom he was a friend. Wright’s play, which takes place during and before a late 50s appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jack Paar,” gives us a late-career Levant, bent to the point of breaking by drug and alcohol abuse and mental issues but still wicked with a quip and even better in front of a keyboard. Hayes, an accomplished pianist himself, is pretty much a perfect choice to portray him.
This is not your “Will and Grace” Sean Hayes. It’s hard to locate even a trace of Jack McFarland in his performance as the depressed, frumpy, addled, but brilliant Levant. This Oscar’s whole body is bent over, shaking, and almost seems as if he would like to crawl into the furniture and disappear despite also remaining the life of the party. This duality is the magic that Hayes and Peterson bring to the character, who is trying here to navigate a four-hour pass from the mental hospital (orchestrated by his wife June) in order to appear on Paar’s first-ever west coast show.
As Paar, Ben Rappaport is a sly and subtly manipulative genius, glad-handing the network brass—who are understandably nervous about giving a platform to someone as out of control both personally and professionally as Levant—and then quietly and firmly doing exactly as he pleases. In this case, that means feeding Oscar the lead-ins to discuss the precise topics that the brass (in the person of Peter Grosz’s Bob Sarnoff) has forbidden. And, oh, Levant is able to run wild with them! His off-color, outrageous, and undeniably hilarious rejoinders easily help us to see not only why Paar wanted him here but also why he defies his boss. Levant may cause controversy, but people will notice him.
As June, Emily Bergl gives a multilayered, stellar performance. Her Mrs. Levant is tired to the point of exhaustion from dealing with her husband’s unpredictable and occasionally violent behavior, but she continues to love him enough to make this night happen through some clever deception. Ultimately, she wants him back as he was before alcohol and a pill addiction stemming from his recovery from a 1953 heart attack irrevocably changed him…even though she is fully aware that won’t ever really happen.
The other characters include an overly enthusiastic network gofer named Max (who is Sarnoff’s nephew). He is starstruck and loves meeting his idols, one of whom is Levant. (He enjoys doing a not-too-terrible impersonation of him.) Tramell Tillman plays Alvin, a straight-arrow whom Oscar’s doctor has sent along to keep him out of trouble. And John Zdrojeski plays Gershwin himself, as seen in Death of a Salesman-esque scenes within Levant’s tormented mind—aided and defined by Ben Stanton and Carolina Ortiz Herrara’s lighting design as well as Andre Pluess’s sound—where he is both a mentor and a rival as well as a friend. (These expressionistic flashbacks and fantasies are not the only homage to Arthur Miller’s masterpiece in Wright’s script, as Max’s idol-worship reflects Biff’s and June’s complex emotions and pain at the end echo Linda’s.)
This complicated relationship with the man whose work he idolizes—and whose “Rhapsody in Blue” has become his signature piece—is the central conflict of Levant’s inner world. Hayes fully delivers on this conflict as we watch Levant struggle with the contradictory facts that he became famous as the world’s best interpreter of Gershwin after the composer’s death and that this fame, with its accompanying clamor for him to play nothing but Gershwin, brought his own composing career to an abrupt halt. Hayes brilliantly portrays a man who sought fame but found it in a less than satisfying way. Meanwhile, Peterson, whose sense of pacing is nothing short of perfection, makes the most of a Rachel Hauck-designed set that cleverly does triple duty as Paar’s office, the Tonight Show set, and the Tonight Show green room…and allows for easy transitions into those flashbacks and fantasies.
Good Night, Oscar is a powerful and powerfully entertaining piece of work, performed to perfection by a cast that couldn’t be better under a director at the top of her game. The full house at Monday’s opening—hard to come by as the world reopens from the pandemic—was wildly enthusiastic; this is not a play to miss. Tickets are available at the Goodman website and the show runs through April 24.