Good Night, Oscar Broadway Review. Sean Hayes as Oscar Levant

When Sean Hayes as the concert pianist and celebrated wit Oscar Levant sits down at the piano to play “Rhapsody in Blue,” I thought at first that it was a recording and he was simulating the recital. But no, Hayes was himself a concert pianist before he was an actor, and his beautiful live rendition of Gershwin’s beloved jazz piano concerto is without question the highlight of “Good Night, Oscar,”  which is opening tonight at Broadway’s Belasco Theater.   Unfortunately, there were few other highlights for me in this workmanlike production written by Doug Wright, directed by Lisa Peterson and starring Hayes that attempts a portrait of Oscar Levant.

The real Oscar Levant in a scene from “An American in Paris”

Granted, their assignment to create Levant for the stage was a challenge.  Oscar Levant (1906-1972) was a musical prodigy — concert pianist, conductor and composer – who had a strong personal connection to George Gershwin, first as a fan, then as a friend, then as a posthumous interpreter. Levant was also a movie actor,  probably best known as Gene Kelly’s sidekick in “An American in Paris,” where he is shown playing the piano – and every other instrument in the orchestra – to perform Gershwin’s Concerto in F in its entirety.   In addition to these accomplishments, Levant was a frequent presence on radio and TV as a talk show guest and game show panelist, known for his quips.  He also openly discussed — joked about  — what we would now call his struggles with mental health, which got worse as he aged.

How do you dramatize the complex life of such a complicated man? “Good Night, Oscar” does so primarily by relying on 65-year-old one-liners and a bit of psychodrama during a single TV talk show appearance.

 It is 1958 and Oscar Levant has been booked to appear on the West Coast debut of “The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar.”   But he’s late, and the head of NBC, Bob Sarnoff (Peter Grosz) , complains to Paar. Then Levant’s wife June (Emily Bergl)  shows up and confides to Paar that  Oscar is in a mental institution, where she had him committed a month earlier, and where he’s getting electroshock treatments (June says he told her: “Before they flip the switch, I put a slice of bread in each pocket. When they’re done – voila! – toast for breakfast.”) 

But she’s arranged for him to get a four-hour pass so that he can appear on the show, lying to the doctor that it is to attend his daughter’s graduation.

When Oscar finally shows up after so much conversation about him (even quoting his quips), it feels like something of an anti-climax —and just the first one. We continue to learn about his past through his reminiscences with Paar’s bubbly assistant Max (Alex Wyse), and his interaction with Alvin (Marchánt Davis) the medical orderly accompanying him from the mental ward. There are a couple of flashbacks with Gershwin (John Zdrojeski), depicted as Oscar’s illness-induced hallucinations. The dead composer supplies some of the psychodrama in the play; we learn at length how Levant worshipped Gershwin’s talent but always felt in his shadow.

It is in this weave of testimony that we are meant to piece together Oscar’s life, his accomplishments, his eccentricities, his addictions, his dangerous wit. The problem is that the set-up creates Oscar’s eventual on-air chat as the only real action in the play, the climactic moment toward which the entire play has been building. When we finally get to it, about two-thirds of the way through the 100-minute play, the repartee seems standard-issue naughty talk-show chatter – allusions to J Edgar Hoover’s crossdressing and sex between Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, for example.  Were his jokes cutting edge for 1958? Perhaps, but that didn’t feel like a satisfying enough reason to build a whole play around them. 

The tip-off that the playwright understands Levant’s old outrageousness doesn’t  necessarily stand out these days is in a line that got one of the biggest laughs of the night, when Bob, in reacting to an anecdote Oscar tells about his time in the “nuthouse,” says: “Remarks like that – lurid sob stories, tabloid disclosures, segments designed to provoke, to titillate — that’s not what television is for.”

Perhaps Levant paved the way for the current crop of late night jokesters, but it’s been repaved many times since. Some of his one-liners are still funny, or at least startling:

“What do you do for exercise?” Paar asks.
“I stumble, then I fall into a coma.”

 Others don’t elicit laughs so much as signal that Oscar is a cut-up (or at least sees himself that way.) He introduces Alvin to Max as being “previously employed as social secretary for Attila the Hun.“  This might well have been a fresh barb 65 years ago.

One aspect of the play that has aged worse than the humor is the treatment of mental health.  Paar goes out of his way to encourage Levant to make light of his neuroses. In his opening monologue he calls Oscar “America’s greatest wit” but adds:

“It’s true Oscar is unusual. Eccentric, even. A hypochondriac? Definitely; he’s got more pills in his medicine chest than Rexall’s does in its whole pharmacy. He’s taken cures for which there are no known diseases. But I believe – and I think he’d agree – that it’s good for Oscar to get out every once and a while and greet his public. His appearances on this show are therapy, really…”

There are lines in the play that condemn what we would now call Paar’s enabling behavior 

Jack: June, if Oscar needs help – serious help – I would never – 
June: Never do what? Compromise his recovery? Of course you would. We all would. We do it every day. And no one does it more than Oscar himself. It’s how he makes his living, isn’t it? 

Later, Alvin: Shame on them, putting a man as sick as you on television. 

But it’s easy to view “Good Night, Oscar” itself as doing what Jack Paar (and the others) did, taking advantage of Oscar Levant’s mental illness for the purposes of entertainment. While no one can fault Sean Hayes’ comic timing, there was something histrionic about much of his performance, which amps up Oscar’s inebriation from prescription medication, and emphasizes his acute attacks of anxiety and deep expressions of agony – all of which struck me (fairly or not) as an effort at virtuosity at Oscar Levant’s expense.

 Much of the rest of the acting just feels off – stagey — perhaps in part because the performers are required to deliver so much exposition.  

By the end of “Good Night, Oscar,” I was sorry the play didn’t include more of Sean Hayes’ piano playing. Indeed, I might have preferred a solo show in which Hayes alternated between delivering  music and monologues — much like the shows that actor and pianist Hershey Felder has made a career creating about such musical figures as Beethoven, Leonard Bernstein, and Irving Berlin.

Good Night, Oscar
Belasco Theater through August 27, 2023
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $94-$248. Digital lottery: $40
Written by Doug Wright
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Set design by Rachel Hauck, costume design by Emilio Sosa, 
Lighting design by Carolina Ortiz Herrera and Ben Stanton, sound design by Andre Pluess, hair wig and makeup design by J Jared Janas, dramaturg Jacqueline E. Lawton
Cast: Sean Hayes as Oscar Levant, Emily Bergl as June Levant; Marchánt Davis as Alvin Finney, Peter Grosz as Bob Sarnoff; Ben Rappaport as Jack Paar; Alex Wyse as Max Weinbaum; John Zdrojeski as George Gershwin.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

1 thought on “Good Night, Oscar Broadway Review. Sean Hayes as Oscar Levant

  1. I saw the show and liked it, of course this had a lot to do with the virtuoso performance of Rhapsody in Blue. I am old enough to remember watching Levant with Jack Paar on his post tonight show, Friday night weekly series. I, like others of my era, remember him well and it takes a bit of time to warm up to the humor in the show as the over the top portrayal is a bit jarring at the beginning. I don’t know if the actual joke with Miller and Monroe was said on TV as many of the anecdotes we heard were ones found in Levant’s books and in lines from the few movies he made. The 20 somethings around me laughed some but were pretty bewildered at the name dropping that took place as part of the talky exposition. Like Mrs. Maisel, writers who were not alive during the era they are writing about think that name dropping and including a cliched story about those names is representing an era. Not so. The show is definitely worth seeing in this Broadway era of overwhelming pop junk and social justice themes.

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