‘Good Night, Oscar’ Broadway Review: Sean Hayes Pays Tribute To Golden Age Second Banana

If ever a play had good reason to front-load itself with exposition, Good Night, Oscar is it. Once among America’s premiere wits and raconteurs, Oscar Levant has gone the way of many another once-famous wits and raconteurs. Which is to say, he needs lots of exposition.

Good Night, Oscar, the new bio-play by Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife) starring Sean Hayes (Will & Grace) as Levant, goes a long way in introducing this long-ago talk-show staple to modern audiences. Whether it justifies the effort is considerably less certain.

A talented pianist and occasional second-banana movie actor, Levant is better known today for his frequent talk- and game-show appearances of the 1950s and ’60s, his aptitude for the improvised zinger and no-holds-barred confessional humor making him a sought-after, if controversial, Golden Age presence. Others would follow in his wake – the Gore Vidals and Truman Capotes and Phyllis Newmans, but Levant was first.

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And before you ask Phyllis Who?, consider that even those of fleeting fame can make for fine, compelling biographies. Wright, Hayes and director Lisa Peterson are likely very sure that Levant ranks among that list, but Good Night, Oscar is less than convincing.

So here goes. Levant largely made his name as a pianist interpreting the work of his friend and musical better George Gershwin. He made his name as an actor as a wingman in films like An American in Paris, The Band Wagon and Humoresque. He made his name as a TV personality with quirky, sophisticated late-night appearances that delighted audiences with vaguely risque quips, self-deprecating jokes about his homely appearance, and candid disclosures about his addictions and mental health challenges. He was a man forever on the verge of a nervous breakdown, one of the era’s few personalities who could make Paar seem stable by comparison.

Some of his witticisms survive him. He’s the guy who said he knew Doris Day before she was a virgin, and that beneath all the phony tinsel of Hollywood is real tinsel.

Ripostes like that, even today, might make for some mild amusement dropped from a talk show couch, but strung together and passing for dialogue they make tedious biography. Good Night, Oscar tries very hard to present Levant as a sort of Lenny Bruce-in-the-making – and who knows, maybe he was – but for all the hard sell, the play seems even more intent on serving as Tony bait for a hammy Hayes.

Set mostly backstage at Paar’s Tonight show, a nervous – well, more nervous than usual – Levant waits to make one of his popular guest appearances. This time, though, it’s different: Levant has spent the last few months committed to a mental ward, and through the truth-bending ministrations of his wife June (Emily Bergl), the drug-addicted pianist has been given a four-hour pass. The supportive Paar (Ben Rappaport) is aware of the situation, but NBC honcho Bob Sarnoff (Peter Grosz) most assuredly is not.

Even before Levant sneaks a gullet-full of tranquilizers, we know the Tonight appearance is a ticking time bomb. He tells a nasty joke about Marilyn Monroe that even today might raise eyebrows, and he talks about politics and mental problems and drugs and religion – all the things Sarnoff had made him promise to avoid.

Throughout the play, Wright has a hallucinating Levant haunted by visits from Gershwin (John Zdrojeski), reminding us again and again what’s eating this midcentury Salieri. Determined to prove that he is every bit the equal to the great composer, Levant pledges that tonight, on Tonight, he’ll show the world just how talented he really is.

So it’s more than a little odd when Hayes finally sits at the beautifully lit Steinway to make the case for Levant’s worth…and plays “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Title: Good Night, Oscar
Venue: Broadway’s Belasco Theatre
Director: Lisa Peterson
Playwright: Doug Wright
Cast: Sean Hayes, Emily Bergl, Marchánt Davis, Peter Grosz, Ben Rappaport, Alex Wyse, John Zdrojeski
Running time: 1 hr 40 min (no intermission)

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