In Good Night, Oscar, Doug Wright has written a play that does a public service in commemorating the freewheeling wit and general obstreperousness of a mostly forgotten mid-century entertainer. Today Oscar Levant is remembered, if at all, as the wisecracking ivory tickler who serves as the loyal best friend to Gene Kelly’s Jerry Mulligan in the written-for-the-screen 1951 musical An American in Paris. Wright makes a convincing case that Levant, who as a child was a piano prodigy and later became a confidant of George Gershwin (whose catalog became the basis for the film after his death), was one of America’s, or at least Hollywood’s, greatest quipsters. Levant delivered so many brilliant one-liners that Wright judged, correctly, that simply shaping a play around them would create a merry evening of theater. Good Night, Oscar (at the Belasco Theatre through August 27) is indeed one of the few really funny plays I’ve seen on Broadway in the last ten years.
Sean Hayes, who built a base of fans as a campy gay sidekick in the 1998–2006 NBC sitcom Will & Grace, is fifty-two, the same age that Levant was in 1958, when the action of the play transpires, but is an odd choice to play the character. He seems to be laboring to mimic Levant’s voice and adopts a fierce, off-putting squint that gives Levant the appearance of someone who has just stepped on a rusty nail, or is in the process of passing a kidney stone. Suggesting interior pain rather than making a sourpuss face for an hour and a half might have been a wiser option; Hayes never lets us forget he’s acting, although, to be fair, critics and audiences often reward performers who operate under the quantity theory of acting.
The character, though, is hugely appealing, and in erecting a play around Levant’s personality Wright has resorted to some ancient and highly effective tricks. First is to whet the audience’s interest by having other characters speak of him with great excitement and with great doubt about whether he will even appear: as the play opens, we’re in the offices of The Tonight Show, or rather Tonight, its then-title, just after the host Jack Paar (Ben Rappaport) and associates have moved the show to Los Angeles from New York. Everyone is nervous about booking a top-flight guest to assure a smooth transition. Two hours before the show is to start, the network president (Peter Grosz) frets that Levant is, though talented, unreliable. How unreliable? Mrs. Levant (Emily Bergl) storms in to announce that there will be even greater difficulty than usual in summoning Levant as she has recently had him committed to a mental hospital, where he sits at this moment.
So the audience is already thoroughly primed to be intrigued by this nerve-scarring miscreant who plays by his own rules when Hayes’s Oscar finally appears in the second scene, firing off quips in every direction. For quite a while the play glides along on the strength of one polished quip after another. (“The world needs more geniuses with humility; there are so few of us left.”) Wright skillfully fabricates suspense around such routine occurrences as late-night comics joking about politics and pianists playing the piano by having characters assure us in detail why these events will not happen. He warns Levant about all of the things he is strictly forbidden to discuss, namely sex, religion, and politics. Levant agrees but notes that he absolutely refuses to play the piano on the telecast and may not even be physically capable of doing so.
Levant’s mental-health struggles (he has what we now call obsessive-compulsive disorder) provide him with lots of joke fodder: when he undergoes electrical shocks, he quips, he first places a slice of bread in each pocket so he’ll have toast when he’s done. Meanwhile, his addiction to pills creates a Chekhov’s gun in the form of a satchel full of drugs, kept by his institution-sent minder (Marchánt Davis), that must be strictly safeguarded and kept from Oscar’s grasp.
Despite all of these clever devices, the middle of the play does lag a bit, especially when the director Lisa Peterson overworks Levant’s obsession with his dead friend, Gershwin (John Zdrojeski), who died of a brain tumor at thirty-eight, two decades before the events in the play. Levant is humbled by his inability to compose anything on Gershwin’s level and haunted especially by Rhapsody in Blue, which stirs such powerful artistic envy as well as personal experience of loss that its existence in his mind is a kind of low-level torture. The thought of playing it on live television is to Levant inconceivable and non-negotiable, which means in the play it’s guaranteed.
Wright builds to a hilarious payoff (the actual conversation with Paar on Tonight) followed by a rousing piano performance that confirms everything we’ve learned about Levant. Unfortunately, the play lacks an ending (instead it slowly dissolves in the last ten minutes after the jaw-dropping Tonight recital; Hayes turns out to be an experienced pianist). Still, at a tidy one hundred minutes, in a single act, Good Night, Oscar is briskly hilarious, a nugget of old-style Broadway entertainment polished to a high luster.