Theater Review: GOOD NIGHT, OSCAR (Goodman Theatre)

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by Dan Zeff on March 23, 2022

in Theater-Chicago


From the late 1930s to the early 1950s, Oscar Levant was one of the most popular and versatile figures on the American entertainment scene. Levant was a pianist, composer, radio and television personality, motion picture actor, and raconteur known and enjoyed for his caustic wit.

Levant also was neurotic, a hypochondriac, suffered from mental illness, and was addicted to drugs. Levant may be little remembered today, but in his time he was hugely famous and frequently controversial. Levant was sometimes called the American Oscar Wilde and he titled one of his three popular autobiographical books The Importance of Being Oscar.

The Goodman Theatre is presenting the premiere of Doug Wright’s play Good Night, Oscar. The play offers, in about 100 intermission-free minutes, a searing, funny, poignant portrait of Levant when the man’s life was spinning out of control. It’s a strong piece of writing elevated to the “must see” level by Sean Hayes’s stunning performance as the gifted and tortured Levant

The narrative is built on a what might have happened before during and after Levant’s guest appearance on Jack Paar’s late night NBC TV talk show in 1958. The play begins with several minutes of dialogue among supporting characters to establish Levant’s troubled life. Then the man makes his appearance and a disturbing appearance it is. Levant’s mental and physical condition has deteriorated to the point where he has been committed to the mental ward of a Los Angeles hospital. But Levant has been booked as a guest on the Paar show and signed out of the hospital by his loyal and plucky wife June on a four-hour pass, behind the back of Oscar’s doctor.

What follows is a sometimes funny, often painful exploration of a man living on his nerve ends. Levant is an emotional wreck but shards of the famous Levant wit do shine through, including pertinent observations about the psychology of comedy and the roots of humor in the comedian’s personal pain. NBC chief Robert Sarnoff is on the scene, understandably fearful that Levant will be a loose cannon in front of the TV cameras and pleads with Oscar to restrict his conversation with Paar to harmless chat, especially sidestepping any astringent commentary on politics, religion, and sex. Fat chance!

Much of the play is straight realism with interludes of hallucinations as Levant connects with composer George Gershwin, who became a close friend of Levant in the 1930s (Gershwin had died in 1938). The play’s intensity rises to a crescendo near the end with a feverish performance of Gershwin’s famous piano concerto Rhapsody in Blue.

Hayes’s commanding performance is supplemented by quality supporting contributions from Ben Rappaport as Jack Paar, Emily Bergi as June Levant, Peter Grosz as Robert Sarnoff, Ethan Slater as Sarnoff’s nephew and go-for Max Weinbaum, Tramell Tillman as the hospital male nurse trying to keep Levant in line, and John Zdrojeski as the shade of George Gershwin. Rappaport in particular delivers a spot-on performance as Paar and even sounds like him.

The play is directed by Lisa Peterson who insightfully helps Hayes shape the complex Levant persona. Rachel Hauck’s sets realistically recreate the TV studio environment. Emilio Sosa designed the costumes that give the production an authentic 1950s’ look, and Ben Stanton and Carolina Ortiz Herrera the lighting.

Good Night, Oscar will have special meaning for viewers of a certain age who recall Levant in his witty heyday on radio and early TV. The play focuses on Levant in psychological disarray and omits much of the humor that made him such a popular celebrity in his younger and happier days. It would be a treat to see Hayes in a one-man show portraying Levant when he was in top form in the 1940s, before he became a tragic figure. Then he was really something.

photos by Liz Lauren

Good Night, Oscar
Goodman Theatre’s Albert Theatre, 170 North Dearborn
ends on to April 18, 2022
EXTENDED to August 24, 2022
for tickets, call 312.443.3800 or visit Goodman Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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