Los Angeles Theater Review: FOR PIANO AND HARPO (Falcon Theatre in Burbank)

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by Tony Frankel on February 14, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles


Jazz pianist, TV personality, actor, author, film composer and arranger Oscar Levant (1906-1972) was quite possibly one of the quickest wits on record. His sophisticated and often vicious put-downs (a style made famous by members of the Algonquin Club), whether self-deprecating or shot bow-and-arrow style at others, were a riot (“I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin”). His caustic character, off-color observations, and provocative invectives created joy and discomfiture at the same time. Later in his career, 1958-1960, when TV was in its infancy, it was Levant’s unpredictability and jaw-dropping, droll humor that brought him a following with his own late-night talk show.

After the untimely 1937 death of his friend George Gershwin, who he both adored and envied, Levant became known as one of the foremost interpreters of Gershwin’s compositions (he was also the first performer to record Rhapsody in Blue after Gershwin). Levant found flavors in Gershwin’s music that, combined with his piano expertise, brought him great popularity in recordings (at one time, he was one of the highest paid musical artists in the U.S.). He also scored numerous Broadway plays and Hollywood films, composed classical music, authored several books, and contributed numerous articles on musical topics.

In 1958, television host Jack Paar convinced Levant to appear on his program. For the next six years the composer appeared with regularity, amusing viewers with his neurotic satire. And it is his shaky appearance on that show that begins the world premiere of For Piano and Harpo by Dan Castellaneta. You won’t hear or learn about most of Levant’s fortunes, but the bio-drama memory play is awash with Levant’s witty anxious sarcasms, deliciously adapted into dialogue. This, combined with some funny antics, makes Falcon Theatre’s production engaging—to a very small point.

In life, Levant both shocked and intrigued viewers with his open discussions about his neuroses and his addiction to painkillers (unheard of during these early years of television). While his illnesses became more apparent with each appearance—slowed speech, jittery handshis wit remained as sharp as ever. The central focus of the play is Levant’s illness, not his successes, so expect quite a bit of dime-store psychology, such as Levant learning that he overcompensates because of a tyrannical father who slapped him after a family recital for not playing the scheduled pieces (the psychological revelations here may have been shocking in the 1950s, but they are tame today). Ultimately, the two-hour two-act means to have as the central focus Harpo’s relationship with Oscar, and how the horn-tooting harp-playing Marx brother kept Levant from a life in the straight jacket, but the framework is simply too choppy to settle on a theme.

Castellaneta (best known as the voice of TV’s Homer Simpson) does a fine job himself playing Oscar Levant, tics and all; five other actors play a variety of roles. The playwright cleverly creates psych ward patients who mirror the people in Levant’s life. One example is Charlie, Levant’s roommate at the mental hospital, and Harpo (both played by the intriguing, inimitable JD Cullum); each character has similar qualities—helpful, sweet, funny and co-dependent—and use non-verbal communication to effect. It’s a terrific device, and both Castellaneta and Cullum never overplay their welcome. But as directed by Stefan Novinski, the remainder of the actors bounce between caricature and authenticity; instead of a dry martini, it tastes like oil and water.

As with Stoneface—Sacred Fools’ dramatization of Buster Keaton’s mental illness and alcoholism—the dirty-laundry subject matter here is so depressing that it’s impossible to care about anyone on stage. If the paparazzi had been as aggressive and the media as able to transmit information in the 1950s as they are today, Levant could have rivaled Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan in the watch-me-screw-up-my-life-before-your-very-eyes department. This alone—watching Levant plagued by devils and screwing up his life—is no fun to see.

Equally similar to Stoneface is the disengaging episodic nature. There’s no shortage of witty lines, but they are in lieu of dramatic structure. It’s back-and-forth between his television show appearance, adolescent interactions with a strict Orthodox Jewish family, a courtship and marriage to second wife June Gale, his friendship with Harpo Marx at the comedian’s rented mansion, his struggle with serious composition under Arnold Schoenberg’s tutelage, and interactions with other patients at the Mt. Sinai psych ward. As such, Levant’s journey of insomnia, prescription drug addiction, and forced institutionalization (involving group therapy) never gains momentum, and scenes rarely develop into anything more than a snippet of reminiscence (remember, everything is happening after we see Levant on the Jack Paar show in 1958). There are times when it seems Levant is on the road to recovery, but that never happens (and I sure would love to see the playwright posit why June Levant stayed with her husband for 33 years if he was such a mess).

The other hard-working actors (Deb Lacusta, Gail Matthias, Phil Proctor, and Jonathan Stark) were constantly dashing in and out, moving small set pieces, changing costume, and dealing with props (if, indeed, the thespians used props at all: some had props, some didn’t; I found that incongruity as disconcerting as the fake cigarettes that didn’t blow smoke). But there’s no overall style, and scene segues needed to happen much faster—you don’t want this kind of train to slow down for a second lest you notice that there’s no trajectory.

And while older patrons may find plenty of joy and nostalgia in familiar people, music, and jokes from the past—Fanny Brice even made an appearance in a party scene—I think millennials will be positively mystified by the many references and mid-twentieth-century humor.

I quite enjoyed scenes with Harpo and Oscar (with delicious upstage accompaniment by pianist David O and harpist Jillian Risigari-Gai) and Harpo’s journey to move on from Oscar’s shenanigans. Also watchable is Lacusta’s take as both June Levant and psych-ward crony Barbara (shades of Eileen Brennan here). Truly, even with some presentationalism, there wasn’t a bad actor in the bunch—but all believability went out the window when they weren’t grounded. It appears that Novinski had his hands full just staging this play, one which has as much promise as Oscar Levant but in the end also seems like a lost cause.

photos by Sasha A Venola

For Piano and Harpo
Falcon Theatre
4252 Riverside Dr. in Burbank
ends on March 5, 2017
for tickets, call 818.955.8101 or visit Falcon

{ 1 comment }

David February 25, 2017 at 1:34 pm

Thanks for your thoughtful review. There are two other plays on Levant: One received a production in Florida; another is by David Adjmi, which I know nothing about. I have the option on the excellent 1994 biography, A Talent for Genius, and I’ve adapted it into a film script, but it’s quite different from this play in review. (No mention in my screenplay of Harpo, Levant’s father, or Paar for that matter.)

I do want to mention that Levant was hardly a 1950s equivalent of Lohan or Sheen when it came to addiction. Simply put, he got addicted to Paraldehyde and pills after his heart attack when he was 46, and his radio, records, and concert popularity were behind him. (He was still under contract to MGM.) The doctors in some cases over-prescribed; he also had OCD and was not diagnosed as bipolar until his 40s.

By the early 1960s, however, the worst was over, although he never performed except briefly on TV (and a 1958 “comeback concert” at the Bowl), and he lived mostly in seclusion. His last 2 books were both bestsellers and he promoted them on TV to a limited degree. (The Merv Griffin appearances are happily extant.)

June filed for divorce at least twice, in 1947 and 1958, and ended up changing her mind each time. She said, “I just couldn’t leave him when he was sick.” Their daughters turned out well (the oldest Marcia is since deceased) and one had a long career working at Julliard. And he truly loved his children.

For prime Oscar, listen to his brilliant 1930s/40s radio appearances on Information Please, which is available on various online vintage radio show sites.



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