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Goodnight, Oscar

Ben Rappaport, Sean Hayes  (Photo: Joan Marcus)



Goodnight, Oscar

By Fern Siegel


Oscar Levant is not a name well known today — but from the 1930s to the 1960s, his caustic wit and piano virtuosity were legendary.


“There is a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased that line,” he quipped.


His sassy rejoiners are on display at Goodnight, Oscar, now on Broadway at the Belasco Theater.


Sean Hayes, best known as Jack in Will & Grace, successfully portrays the tortured master. It’s spring 1958, back stage at The Jack Paar Show studios in Burbank, California. Levant, a favorite guest of Paar’s (Ben Rappaport), is prepping for his slot. What the audience doesn’t know — and Levant was always candid about his neurosis and mental-health issues — is that he is barely functional.


Committed to Mount Sinai Hospital by his wife June (Emily Bergl), Levant is out on a four-hour leave, just long enough to do the show and return.


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Emily Bergl and Sean Hayes. (Photo: Joan Marcus)


But Levant is so much more than a collection of well-orchestrated ticks.


Plagued by an addiction to cigarettes and prescription drugs, as well as anxiety and depression, he often turned his humor on himself, to the delight of audiences: “I was once thrown out of a mental hospital for depressing the other patients.”


He loved to send up Hollywood’s pretensions, famously noting: “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.” And he was equally good at slinging arrows at power: “A politician is a man who will double cross that bridge when he comes to it.”


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Alex Wyse and Sean Hayes. (Photo: Joan Marcus)


Levant was also a musical genius -- and his accomplishments as a conductor, composer, performer were celebrated -- just not at Goodnight, Oscar. Doug Wright’s play focused more on his torment, but without context. There was no sense of Levant’s overall success. Rather than a catalog of his ills, showing more Paar show banter, with an occasional glimpse behind the curtain, would have captured his singularity.


That would have highlighted how Herculean it is to be witty while plagued. What drives genius? What torments it? Dramatically exploring the price paid is a compelling thesis. Then the George Gershwin mentorship and rivalry — Levant was considered the foremost interpreter of Gershwin (John Zdrojeski) after the composer’s death in 1937 — would have been an element, as opposed to a cudgel. (Hayes demonstrates his own piano mastery in the show.) 


As a composer, Levant, born in Pittsburgh of Russian Jewish parents, spent most of his energies in Hollywood, writing music for more than 20 films. He also had some success as a popular songwriter, the most enduring of his catalog being "Blame It On My Youth," a standard still covered today.


Late-night talk shows became a mainstay of after-dark TV in the 1950s and 1960s, and Levant employed his trademark wit to reinvent himself as the preeminent talk show guest. He was sure to make audiences laugh, sitting down to a piano afterwards to offer a world-class performance on the fly.


The problem for Goodnight, Oscar is that it takes forever to begin, and the story arc is weak.


Though laudable, Hayes’ performance is more of an impersonation than an informed portrayal of a complex character. Hayes is an impressive pianist, but his performance, however solid, was more of a curiosity than a moving depiction of a difficult life lived. That fault lies with the playwright, who seemed content to compile a list of Oscar Levant’s most memorable quotes, then string them together to form the bare skeleton of play that highlights the man’s cleverness, but loses the emotional impact of a dramatic and difficult life.   


Goodnight, Oscar, Belasco Theater - 111 W. 44 St.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes – no intermission